Opera Meets Film: Mahler’s Angelic Voice Emphasizes the Tragic Irony ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment Joel and Ethan Coens’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Few films are packed with as much cruel irony as the Coens’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film centers on the titular folk musician as he tries to find his path after the death of his old partner Mike, constantly hurling him around from one failure to another. In many ways, the character is reminiscent of Odysseus from Homer’s “Odyssey,” a man lost at sea and trying to find his way home, constantly sidetracked by the cruelty of the world.

In keep with this theme, the Coens emphasize a cyclical structure throughout that emphasizes the never-ending whirlwind of Llewyn Davis’ life. Past events of his life are constantly reoccurring, including repeated visits to the same gynecologist office for different abortions, the same scene opening and closing the film, and the continued pursuit of a cat named, unsurprisingly, Ulysses.

It is this final point which proves the most significant for the main character, even if it initially seems to be the least essential in his crazed life. The cat belongs to the Gorfeins, the only people that ever seem to show any sort of appreciation for Davis’ talent. But throughout the film, Davis watches as the cat constantly escapes his grasp, returns to him, and then repeats the cycle.

It is at the film’s subdued climax where this cycle seems to come to an end and we hear the film’s “operatic” excerpt. After a failed audition in Chicago, Davis hitchhikes back to New York. As he drives back in the dead of night (in a film that spends a great deal of time inside cars, this is one of two depictions of Davis in control of the steering wheel), he turns on the radio and stops on a station playing the final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Suddenly, he hits a cat.

Davis stops the car and takes a look around, the music playing in the background, and sees the cat slowly limping into a brush. While the cat is not the Gorfein’s Ulysses, there is no doubt of the connection; in an earlier scene, Davis thinks he has found Ulysses in the street, only to realize that it is a cat of the wrong sex. This climax emphasizes the collision course that he has been on with the Gorfein’s cat throughout the film and its never-ending cycle. Even after this new cat was hit by Davis, it still managed to survive. No doubt, they will meet again at some point. A few scenes later, Ulysses will be back at the Gorfein’s house as if nothing ever happened.

Mahler’s music here plays up this sense of irony and provides a unique counterpoint to the general melancholy and sadness of the film. Washed in a dulled and muted color palette, this is not the film for a cheery angelic soprano voice. And yet, there it is, singing about living in “greatest peace” and leading “angelic lives” with “merry time,” dancing, skipping, and singing. Most importantly, it speaks of a special place that unites and brings everyone together in this merriment, making mentions of “eleven thousand virgins,” Saint Luke, John, “Cecilia and all her relations,” and many references to “angels.” Moreover, the text talks of a bountiful meal. It’s that very eden that someone like Davis would want, but can never achieve.

As such, the piece of music has no seeming impact on him at all and as staged, the music plays on the radio while Davis walks out into the cold, emphasizing the disconnect between the two; it’s playing, but he’s not really listening.

But the real nail in the coffin is the realization that this music is expressing something that the film has already exposed throughout – musicians who come together to find joy and “merry time” not only through their music, but by making music together. Even the Gorfeins, who appreciate Davis’ art, seem to establish the feast resembling the one the Angelic voice in the symphony mentions. But Davis is the only one who can’t enjoy it. He repeatedly rejects the notion of performing music with others and when he is forced to, he does it without much enthusiasm. The death of his former partner has closed him off to this potential gathering that the angelic voice suggests.

That’s the true tragic irony of this moment.


Opera Meets Film