The applause for Joel and Ethan Coen’s wonderful new film, a comedy in a melancholic key called “Inside Llewyn Davis,” started someplace around the midway mark. Prompted by the hilariously inane “Please Please Mr. Kennedy,” sung by Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver — who play three bearded 1961 folkies warbling and strumming through a space-race ditty — the Cannes audience started to laugh and clap. By the time the film ended, the clapping, laughing and whooping critics at the 66th Cannes Film Festival were over the moon.
What a relief! After days and nights of rain puddling on the red carpet and grim tidings darkening the screens, the Coens delivered both much-needed levity and an expressive, piercing story about artistic struggle. Mr. Isaac, wearing a deadpan expression that wavers between the soulful and soul-sick, plays Llewyn, a New York folk musician groping to find his existential way in the turbulent wake of a tragedy. With his guitar and bitterness, lofty principles and light wallet, Llewyn is barely scraping by, taking low-paying gigs and crashing on couches. His most recent album, which shares the film’s title, has gone nowhere and he’s spiraling after it rapidly.
The movie opens with him performing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in a Greenwich Village nightclub in which the air is thick with smoke and sincerity, his warmly alive tenor offering a touching contrast to the tune’s fatalism. It’s a traditional song that was covered by, among others, the folk revivalist Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002) and appears on his album “Inside Dave Van Ronk.” The as-told-to book by Van Ronk and Elijah Wald, “The Mayor of Macdougal Street: A Memoir,” partly inspired the Coens, who, as they did in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” also playfully, sometimes pointedly have drawn on Homer’s “Odyssey.” Soon after Llewyn finishes the song, he steps into an alley and receives a bad beating, the first in many punishments on what proves a long, difficult road.
The contradictions of Cannes were evident on Sunday morning when I sat down with the Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke to talk about his latest feature, “A Touch of Sin.” The interview, one of a number he would conduct that day, took place at the Carlton, an old grand hotel that faces the sea along the promenade here, the Croisette. With its white cake-frosting facade, the 100-year-old hotel is the kind of playground for the rich that you can imagine F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald passing through in between his writing chapters of “Tender Is the Night.” Like almost every building on this stretch, the hotel is covered during the festival with advertising banners for movies, so it’s no surprise that images from “The Great Gatsby” are hanging off it like flags.
Mr. Jia’s film is his finest since his 2006 feature, “Still Life,” and his fourth at Cannes. Divided into largely separate if thematically linked chapters, “A Touch of Sin” is a portrait of contemporary China told through four savagely violent episodes that take place in distinct areas of the country. The incidents — three involve murder or mass murder, and one turns on a suicide — are based on events that were widely reported in China and that Mr. Jia said haunted him. In his fictionalized renditions, a seemingly ordinary man and a woman (a massage-parlor receptionist played by Mr. Jia’s wife and his regular star, Zhao Tao) respond to the pressures of their otherwise unremarkable lives with violence that is at once emotionally, horrifyingly realistic and visually baroque.
Speaking in Mandarin through a translator, Mr. Jia explained that the story’s four locations provided him a lot of visual options. The first section — which features an aggrieved miner walking down a dusty street as lonely as any John Wayne traveled — “is in Shanxi, in the north,” he said, adding that it “is basically the Wild West, it’s very manly, very empty.”