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CANNES (Reuters) - Folk music, Greenwich Village and a quick-footed cat star in the new Coen brothers movie at the Cannes film festival on Sunday, kicking off the first of five U.S. entries with its engaging misadventures of a struggling singer.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" by directing duo Ethan and Joel Coen is a delightful tale about the early 1960s folk music scene, a tribute to artists living hand to mouth, and an ode to New York all at once.
Told through the lens of its protagonist Llewyn, played by Oscar Isaac, the movie retains all the quick repartee and quirkiness of classic Coen brothers films such as "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Barton Fink", for which the pair won Cannes' top prize, the Palme d'Or in 1991.
But anchoring the film and providing a counterpoint to the whimsy is the soulful voice and deadpan of Isaac, whose character just cannot catch a break - from concert promoters, his agent, or his on-off lover Jean, played by Carey Mulligan.
"Everything you touch turns to shit. Like King Midas' idiot brother," Jean yells at Llewyn.
As if it is not enough to have no money, no job, and nowhere to live, Llewyn has also managed to lose a kindly older friend's orange cat and the chase scenes between man and feline through the miserable New York winter are among the film's highlights.
"The movie doesn't really have a plot. That concerned us at a certain point. Which is why we brought the cat in. It's really about the cat," Joel Coen joked before Sunday's premiere.
Drawing spontaneous applause from the critics at an advance screening on Saturday was a scene in which Llewyn plays back-up guitar for a friend, played by Justin Timberlake, during a recording session of a wonderfully absurd song about President John F. Kennedy and the U.S. space program.
"I enjoy looking ridiculous in everyday life. So that wasn't hard for me," singer and actor Timberlake quipped to reporters.
The Coens' playful fare followed a mostly somber slate of films competing for the top prize, the Palme d'Or, to be awarded on May 26 by a jury presided over by director Steven Spielberg.
"A boldly original, highly emotional journey through Greenwich Village nightclubs, a bleak New York winter and one man's fraught efforts to reconcile his life and art," wrote Scott Foundas of Variety trade paper in a review.
The Coens compete in the prestigious main competition of 20 films against fellow American directors Steven Soderbergh ("Behind the Candelabra"), Alexander Payne ("Nebraska"), James Gray ("The Immigrant"), Jim Jarmusch ("Only Lovers Left Alive").
A darker tone pervades "Borgman" by Alex Van Warmerdam, the first Dutch film in 38 years in the main competition slate, that also holds its premiere on Sunday, day five of the festival.
Van Warmerdam weaves a feeling of menace through an oddly humorous plot line in which a strange wild-haired man, played by Jan Bijvoet, slowly infiltrates himself and his henchmen into the domestic life of a well-to-do family.
Part domestic drama, part Robocop - with a finale reminiscent of Hamlet with a play and a poisoning - "Borgman" is hard to categorize, but the audience at Sunday's press screening appeared rapt over its grisly humor and moral ambiguity.
"I like to show what you call the evil, the bad, whatever you want to call it, as fairly normal people," Van Warmerdam told reporters. "Not creepy people, not weird walking zombies, just very normal people you'd meet in the supermarket."
Editing by Alison Williams