Cannes Film Festival: Oscar Isaac talks ‘Llewyn Davis’ and Noah Emmerich talks retro roles

If a dominant mood has emerged at the Cannes Film Festival in recent days, it might be wistfulness – with many movies offering sorrow-tinged glances of past eras that, while not floridly nostalgic, are nonetheless drenched with an aching awareness of time passing their protagonists by.

On Sunday, Joel and Ethan Coen’s bittersweet comedy (or gently amusing drama) “Inside Llewyn Davis” made a smashing debut at the festival, with 33-year-old actor Oscar Isaac delivering a breakout performance in the title role of a 1960s-era folk musician who possesses an easily outraged sense of authenticity in inverse proportion to a canny sense of timing.


Cast members from left Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake and Oscar Isaac arrive for the screening of “INside Llewyn Davis.” (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

Isaac, who was born in Guatemala, grew up in Miami, and played in punk and ska bands before attending Julliard, joined a group of reporters on Monday, when he explained that he hung out and played in Greenwich Village to prepare for the role, which called on him to sing and play a series of old folk tunes in successive live takes, which were edited into seamless performances in the film.

Even though he could be seen singing and playing ukulele in the charter-school movie “Won’t Back Down” last year he said he had almost given up on being able to use his musical chops in a film. “For a long time I was like, ‘I guess I gotta focus on the acting thing for a while,’” said Isaac, who has received strong notices for supporting turns in films like “Drive” and “The Bourne Legacy.” “But lately, there have been opportunities to really do both, culminating of course with [‘Inside Llewyn Davis’], which I feel like I’ve been preparing for for 33 years.”

For a minute there, it looked like Isaac might be a shoo-in for Cannes’ highest acting prize, but then Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra” screened for the press on Tuesday morning, sending ecstatic critics on to Twitter and any other platform they could grab to hail Michael Douglas’s touching, uncannily accurate turn as Liberace in the film, which chronicles the pianist’s relationship with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). It’s a measure of how out of whack the modern media has become that “Behind the Candelabra” will open in theaters in Europe, but will play on HBO on Sunday – but then again, that might be appropriate for a film that, as much as it brings an outsized personality to vivid life, reminds viewers that things aren’t what they used to be: The closet was such a suffocating reality – and gay marriage was so off the radar – that Liberace seriously considered adopting Thorson in order to provide him legal and material protection that were otherwise prohibited. (Thorson famously sued for palimony later, and lost.)

Both “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Behind the Candelabra” have emerged as mid-point favorites at Cannes, although due respect was also given to Paolo Sorrentino’s lavish “La Grande Bellezza” (“The Great Beauty”), a Fellini-esque valentine to Rome centered around an aging man-about-town and his feelings of desire, ambivalence and sadness about a city that can enchant and enrage in equal measure. The same combination of yearning and resignation also coursed through the transfixing period piece “Weekend of a Champion,” a documentary about Formula One racer Jackie Stewart that Roman Polanski made in 1971, and showed here on Tuesday with a postscript in which he interviews Stewart about how racing has changed in the past 40 years.

Appropriately enough, the actor Noah Emmerich made time to have a coffee and talk about – what else? – his own trips down memory lane. He’s here for Guillaume Canet’s “Blood Ties,” a crime drama set in the 1970s in which Emmerich co-stars with Billy Crudup and Clive Owen. Most Washington viewers, of course, know him as Stan Beeman, the FBI agent who’s on the trail of two KGB agents in AMC’s Cold War-era series “The Americans.”

“In the last year and a half, everything I’ve done has been pre-1985,” Emmerich said just hours after celebrating the red carpet “Blood Ties” premiere. “I haven’t done something that’s set contemporarily in almost 10 years. Isn’t that odd? I don’t know if it [has to do with] popular interest in the ’70s and ’80s, or me just fitting into that time period.”

There’s no doubt that Emmerich has the kind of timeless face that makes him believable in any era (he’ll leave in a day or two to resume filming the period Western “Jane Got a Gun” in New Mexico). But he noted that “The Americans” has also offered a historical lens through which people can understand a complicated geopolitical present.

Observing that most viewers are rooting for “the bad guys” in the show, he said, “They happen to have been born in the Soviet Union. But they’re interesting, complex human beings, and they think they’re doing something heroic, as does my character think he’s doing something heroic. We’re really mirror images of each other. We live in such a Balkanized world now, there’s no polarity. There’s no evil empire that we’re fighting. The ability to see the human being first and the ideology or politics second is critical, especially in our age right now. So if we can touch that, it’s fantastic. The distance of history makes it easier to accept.”

Oh, and in case you were wondering if Emmerich has a case of wig envy? That would be a yes. “Total wig envy!” he said. “I have complete wig envy. Everyone gets to dress up and my character doesn’t. He’s the straight man. But I’m working on it There is this allusion to his back story, he was undercover for three years, and I think at some point in his journey we’ll be able to show some of those flashbacks, which would be great.”

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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Chris Richards | May 21, 2013