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28 October 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

LFF #9 — A Serious Man

From the London Film Festival: the Coen brothers are back

By Daniel Trilling

A Serious Man
dirs: Joel and Ethan Coen

“Just accept the mystery,” is the advice of one character in the Coens’ new film, and viewers should probably take heed. Lawrence Gopnik is a buttoned-up Jewish university lecturer in 1960s America and the Coens make lots of horrible things happen to him. He doesn’t understand why, we don’t understand why, and the various rabbis he visits can’t explain why. Perhaps in response to the perceived glibness of their last film, Burn After Reading (I quite liked it, but plenty of others didn’t), the Coens have gone for a portentous mix of religion, death and sexual frustration.

In their less flippant moments, the Coens show an interest in the way language can be twisted and used to dominate others: it’s not a million miles away, in fact, from Harold Pinter. There’s a scene here, in which Gopnik is verbally trampled on by a love rival, that really reminds me of The Birthday Party. The Coens may drape their ideas in pop-cultural references and knowing stereotypes (neurotic American Jews, in this case), but often something sinister and suffocating lies beneath.

When they’re good, you sense an underlying thesis, however abstract it might be. (The Big Lebowski, for example, contained a loose allegory of the first Gulf war.) When they’re not so good, the films carry the air of a set piece, a somewhat detached exercise in style. (Burn After Reading was a case in point, indicated by the neat but throwaway visual sequences that topped and tailed the film.)

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A Serious Man sits somewhere between those two points. It does, however, contain at least one great joke. At the front of a crowded synagogue, one of the attendants lets slip an expletive as he lifts an unexpectedly heavy set of Torah scrolls: “Jesus Christ!”

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