Song of the Day #4,227: ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ – Oscar Isaac

Best Movies of the 2010s
#2 – Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

My second favorite film by my favorite filmmakers had to be near the top of this list, right?

The Coen Brothers had an excellent decade, starting with True Grit in 2010 and culminating with 2016’s Hail, Caesar! and 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (which appeared earlier on this list, putting them next to Greta Gerwig as the only directors to show up twice).

But their bona fide masterpiece of the 2010’s was Inside Llewyn Davis, a melancholy ode to a struggling folk singer in early-60s Greenwich Village.

I read a review of this film in which the author said he knew he was done for ten minutes in, when he found himself crying at a cat seeing its reflection in the window of a moving subway train. I can’t say I’ve shed actual tears during that scene, but I know exactly what he means.

The sad folk songs, the gorgeous desaturated cinematography, the soulful eyes of then-newcomer Oscar Isaac… every element of this film is a vice grip on my heart. Beautiful, mournful, sublime.

Of course, being a Coen Brothers movie, it is also extremely funny. And being a Coen Brothers movie, it has a perplexing central symbol that is either the key to everything or the key to nothing at all. Think Miller’s Crossing‘s hat or The Hudsucker Proxy‘s hula hoop. Here it’s the cat, which is lost, found, forgotten and abandoned much like Llewyn himself.

Llewyn Davis is such a marvelous creation, brought to life perfectly by Isaac in a performance that should have won him an Oscar. Llewyn is the guy who played a set right before Bob Dylan took the stage at the Gaslight and changed the face of popular music forever. He’s the man nobody remembers, not because he lacks talent or drive, but because he can’t get out of his own way.

The strain of sadness that forms the backbone of Inside Llewyn Davis is the suicide of Llewyn’s singing partner Mike, which happened some time before the movie starts. So much of Llewyn’s behavior is attributable to his depression over that loss. In a film written and directed by two inseparable brothers, that detail is especially poignant. Is this a movie about the Coens’ fear of losing each other?

I think it is, but I also think it’s about the fickle whims of the entertainment industry. In the film’s most devastating scene, Llewyn gets a chance to audition for star-maker Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). He performs a haunting version of today’s Song of the Day, only to be told “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Ugh!

Like every great Coen Brothers movie, you can unpack this film for days. Or you can just enjoy it for its sights and sounds, its laughs and tears.

Come for the music, stay for the cat.

Queen Jane lay in labor
Full nine days or more
Til her women grew so tired
They could no longer there
They could no longer there

Good women, good women
Good women that ye be
Will you open my right side
And find my baby
And find my baby

Oh, no! cried the women
That’s a thing that can never be
We will call on King Henry
To hear what he may say
And hear what he may say

King Henry was sent for
King Henry he did come
Saying what ail you, my lady
Your eyes they look so dim
Your eyes they look so dim

King Henry, King Henry
Will you do one thing for me
Will you open my right side
And find my baby
And find my baby

Oh, no! cried King Henry
That’s a thing that I can never do
If I lose the flower of England
I shall lose the branch too
I shall lose the branch too

There was fiddling and dancing
On the day the babe was born
But for Queen Jane, beloved
She laid cold as a stone
Laid cold as a stone

5 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,227: ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ – Oscar Isaac

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    You’ll get no disagreement (or discussion about extrinsic factors) on this one. However, this is where personal taste plays a huge factor. A Coen Brothers Western like Buster Scruggs – not so much, but a Coen Brothers movie about a struggling musician-I’m in!

    I would add to your analysis of the movie the role fate and luck plays in the musician’s life beyond talent, virtue or vice, as reflected in the sad irony of Llewyn’s unheralded historic footnote as the artist taking the stage just before the not yet but soon to be legendary Bob Dylan.

    • Clay says:

      I think I would use this movie as a great example of intrinsic factors. Coen Brothers. Melancholy. Dylan-era folk music. A movie with those three elements is destined to appeal to me.

  2. Peg says:

    I’ve become a huge fan of Oscar Isaac and have been a fan of the Coen brothers forever. But this movie didn’t touch me when I saw it. However after reading your review I would like to watch it again—maybe I will change my mind

  3. Amy says:

    Oh, the Coen brothers…. how I do love their films, especially this one, which I haven’t seen in far too long. Just watching the trailer now I got choked up (and, yes, starting with the reflection of the cat in the window 🙂 And Garret Hedlund is in it! Haven’t seen this film since watching and loving Mudbound and his performance in that wonderful film.

    I’m not sure why I never thought about the film exploring the demise of the theoretical Coen brothers’ partnership, but that makes so much sense. The poignancy in this film makes me ache, and not just in the trite way we talk about such things. Truly ache. I remember the first time I saw it just sitting in the theater for several minutes after everyone had cleared out, trying to collect myself to face the rest of the day.
    That said, I do love the humor (“Like flying cars?” 🙂

    You won’t be surprised to learn that this is one of a few films we share on our top 20 decade lists. As we’ve discussed often in the past, it’s our shared love of a film such as this one that makes us want to needle each other into having the same love and appreciation for the films that don’t have that same impact on both of us. Instead, today, I’ll choose to relish our shared love of Llewyn Davis. I hope the Coen brothers give us another film like this one (and like A Serious Man) sooner than later. They have such a touch for these quieter explorations of simple people’s lives, and I’d love to have more of them in their filmography.

  4. Maddie says:

    So lovely to hear Oscar sing. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Llewyn, I know it’s due for a rewatch soon. It’s on my list too, of course, and it would probably move higher if I watch it now with some of the interpretation you’ve written about.

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