In the 1st film without his brother, Joel Coen distills ‘Macbeth’ to the bone

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NEW YORK (AP) – In Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis”, Oscar Isaac’s folk musician tries to fend for himself, without his longtime partner. He’s going to Chicago to audition for Bud Grossman, who has the damning judgment: People need time to get to know you, he says, and “buy you solo.”

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”, Joel Coen’s first production without his brother, is going much better for him than for Llewyn.

An intoxicating and expressionistic adaptation of Shakespeare dense in fog and shadow, Coen’s “Macbeth” is the debut solo of a filmmaker whose visual virtuosity has never been so strongly drawn to sound and fury. The film has been hailed as one of the best Macbeth films – a legacy comprising the powerful portrayal of Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa’s feverish ‘Throne of Blood’ – and an unexpected twist from a previously forever-defined cinematic life. by brotherhood.

“I spent 40 years looking at Ethan after every shot or looking at him if there was a problem. And, so, I missed him because he wasn’t there, ”Coen, who is Jewish, said in a recent interview. “On the flip side, Fran was there as a producer bringing a different skill set that was in some ways missing from what we had done earlier – especially in the context of this particular film due to her experience at the theater.”

“The Macbeth Tragedy” – which hit US theaters on Saturday and airs Jan. 14 on Apple TV + – stars Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Francis McDormand as Lady Macbeth. The project was spearheaded in part by McDormand, who was keen to do the part with her husband directing, possibly on stage. Coen eventually relented, but he could only imagine it as a movie – stripped down and stylized, abstract in black and white and composed in an almost square frame of academy rapport.

“The ambition was to make it like a film in terms of embracing what the medium gives you stylistically, psychologically and formally, but trying not to lose the essence of the playfulness of the literary work,” said Coen. “From the start, we weren’t interested in doing a realistic version of the play. We weren’t interested in a rental version of a chateau.

Denzel Washington, left, and Frances McDormand in “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, released in December 2021. (A24 via AP)

As much as the film is a departure for Coen, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” isn’t really a solo act. In addition to working with actors like McDormand, Washington and Kathryn Hunter (an amazing witch), the film was built through collaborations with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Stefan Dechant.

Coen and Delbonnel, who shot “Inside Llewyn Davis” and the Coen’s previous film, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” first met almost three years ago, spending a week in a Swiss hotel in review ideas and references. During this conversation and others, they understood things like the stylized scenography of Edward Gordon Craig at the beginning of the 20th century, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” by Carl Dryer, the chiaroscuro photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto and “The Night of the Hunter” by Charles Laughton.

Some of the intense conversations Coen might normally have had with his brother, he had them with Delbonnel, leaning over sketches and taking contemplative cigarette breaks. Their connection, says Delbonnel, is to question everything.

“Joel and Ethan were still wondering if this was the right way to do something. There is no right way, but the right way for the film, ”says Delbonnel. “We both think Kurosawa was a genius.”

As far as the hustle and bustle of the Coen brothers’ films may seem remote from Shakespearean tragedy, their films are filled with schemers seized with misguided – usually more outlandish ambitions. It’s not too far from “Fargo,” where the fault was also right, to “Macbeth,” or even McDormand’s opportunistic personal trainer Linda Litzke, in “Burn After Reading,” to Lady Macbeth.

“There are echoes of things we’ve done in the past in this room,” Coen says. “One of the reasons I’ve always loved the play is the way Shakespeare anticipated or foreshadowed these tropes of 20th century detective fiction, this idea of ​​a couple plotting a murder. While they aren’t comically unhappy or characters that we’ve explored in this context in other movies, they’re still losing control of the situation.

Kathryn Hunter in a scene from “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, released in December 2021. (A24 via AP)

Coen’s “Macbeth” comes from a more mature perspective than is typical of the Scottish play. McDormand and Washington are both in their 60s; their Macbeths make a final stab at the throne. There are also parallels for filmmakers.

“We’ve been around for a while and we have ideas,” Delbonnel. “There are things that we like, things that we don’t like. And that’s all.”

Coen admits that his own ambition has waned; he has become more careful in what he is willing to do. His almost annual production with Ethan – they did “No Country for Old Men,” “Burn After Reading,” “A Serious Man” and “True Grit” in four years – now seems “a little crazy” to him. The filming process for “Macbeth,” which has been shut down two-thirds due to the pandemic, is also not something he cares to repeat.

“As you get older you become a lot more special,” Coen laughs. “It’s a different relationship at work. It’s more relaxed, in a good way.

For Coen, less is more and more, especially in the minimalist “The Tragedy of Macbeth”. He and Delbonnel scripted a lot to find the right level of abstraction. Coen didn’t want a castle but the “idea of ​​a castle,” Dechant says.

Realism has never been the Coen’s style – Joel quotes Hitchcock: “My films are not a slice of life. It’s a piece of cake ”- but in“ Macbeth ”he pushed further into a higher, more theatrical cinematic realm. A setting has been invented: a surprising and dreamlike crossroads – fatalism in Coen’s country distilled to a fork that is just as serious as Anton Chigurh’s draw in “No Country”.

Actress Frances McDormand, left, who plays Lady Macbeth, and her husband, director Joel Coen, arrive at the premiere of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” at the DGA Theater on December 18 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP)

Over sparse soundstages, Dechant constructed sets shaped by light, creating spaces out of the psychology of the characters.

“Being woven into the text, the sets were their own thing,” Dechant explains. “The room where the apparitions appear for the second time, the rafters, which totally exist for the psychological cauldron that contains Macbeth. I don’t know what this room is. I don’t know why it exists. But there is for this scene.

Coen doesn’t close the door to the possibility of him and Ethan working together again.

“Who knows what will happen in the future? ” he says. “With Ethan and I, when we started working, we never said for how long or is it a permanent thing. We don’t question each other in that regard.

But it’s also clear that their riffing process – the constant refinement, reflection, and questioning – is a process that always excites and consumes Coen, even if it’s with other collaborators.

“Our process was never really prescribed,” says Coen. “It was never ‘You do this and I do that.’ It was always: we both do everything and whoever is closest to the person asking the question answers the question. That’s basically what making a movie is: answering a lot of questions. . “


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