Superficially, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises are to be two of the most dissimilar films screening in the New York Film Festival. Davis is a sort of nihilistic picaresque, following a struggling folk musician through a series of professional and personal indignities, all while chasing a particularly difficult cat and making one of cinema’s most disastrous road trips. The Wind Rises, on the other hand, is the final film from an animation master, which takes a gentle, melancholy view of the career and marriage of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi. Despite these differences, however, both films prove to be two of NYFF’s most affecting reflections on the subject of loss.
Inside Llewyn Davis approaches loss as a personal phenomenon. Llewyn begins the film with very little (both materially and emotionally), and is gradually stripped of even his meager comforts. During an ill-fated trip to Chicago, the driver from whom he hitches a ride is arrested, his fellow passenger dies, and he even leaves behind the cat that he has so doggedly, absurdly held onto throughout the film. Though the Coen Brothers are often accused of treating their characters as Job figures, punishing them for no particular reason, Llewyn’s series of losses is a literalizing of the way the character experiences the death of a friend. He begins the film as a failing solo artist; the suicide of his former partner is revealed through details both oblique and direct, and emerges more and more clearly as the reason for his self-destructive stasis.
Stylistically, the film realizes a process of visual and aural loss, and places the viewer inside the subjective experience of a person in mourning. Early on, the frame and the soundtrack are filled with images and sounds. It opens with a sequence of Llewyn performing in The Gaslight Cafe. Many of the frames in this sequence are full -- of faces, of coffee cups and cigarettes. The soundtrack is similarly busy, full of rants and repetitions. Early in the film, Llewyn’s ex-lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan), riffs with delightful rage on condoms, building and repeating and insisting that Llewyn use more and more absurd methods of protection. Throughout the film, however, this visual busyness and verbosity are steadily stripped away. During Llewyn's trip to Chicago, in particular, the details of the New York imagery are exchanged for stark images of highways and a restaurant that is surreal and foreboding in its emptiness and minimalism. The trip also features gradually encroaching silence. Though the early stages include some gloriously grand monologues from a jazz musician played by John Goodman, his death leaves nothing but an oppressive quiet. Though the Coens never heavy-handedly emphasize the suicide of Llewyn’s partner and its effect on him, both the overstimulation of the beginning of the film and the emptiness of the later scenes suggest the feelings of oppression and numbness of a man in mourning.
If Inside Llewyn Davis frames loss as a subjective phenomenon, The Wind Rises recognizes loss as inevitable and pervasive, with a graceful resignation to the impermanence of all things. The film follows the parallel plot lines of Jiro’s professional life and his relationship with his wife Naoko, both of which are characterized by a sense of impermanence. When creating new planes, Jiro is constantly aware of the possibility of new models being immediately destroyed while, in his relationship with his wife, even before they marry, both are aware that she will inevitably die from tuberculosis. While these personal losses are given respectful weight, they are also contextualized by the depiction of loss on national and global scales in disasters like the Great Kanto Earthquake and World War II.
While the Coen Brothers visualize loss by moving towards simpler and simpler visuals and soundscapes, Miyazaki uses elemental imagery to capture a sense of evanescence. Bright red flames are featured prominently in disparate forms: bursting out from combusting planes, igniting the tips of cigarettes, and drifting down like snow in the aftermath of the earthquake. Literal snow also falls, tumbling around the carcass of a crashed plane and stealing into Naoko’s open sleeping bag as she savors a private moment to read a letter from Jiro. Perhaps most effectively, raindrops stain the ground around Jiro and Naoko’s feet during the scene in which they first fall in love. Later, when Naoko’s condition has worsened, Jiro completes work while on the train to see her, his tears staining the sheets of paper. With this visual echo, the charming earlier image suddenly assumes an air of melancholy, a reminder that eventually losing Naoko was always inevitable.
As a comedy and animated film, respectively, both Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wind Rises may seem to be unlikely sources for serious reflection on the topic of loss. Despite this apparent conflict between form and subject, however, both the Coens Brothers and Miyazaki have created works of striking beauty and deep resonance. Taken together, Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wind Rises deliver catharsis in their recognition of personal loss, as well as peace in their cosmic view of its inevitability.
This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year's New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.