The latest entry into the category of Kaufman-esque surreal comedies, derived from the name of writer/director Charlie Kaufman, whose films include Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, is Sophie Barthes’s Cold Souls, a film in which a tormented actor has his soul removed from his body and placed in storage while he tries to make it through a staged production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
Paul Giamatti, the exceptional character actor and star of such critically acclaimed films as Sideways and American Splendor, portrays the actor. His character’s name is… Paul Giamatti. Giamatti (the character) reads about a soul removal/storage as a way to alleviate the burden in your life. The article appears in The New Yorker, so you know it has to be legit. Giamatti (the character) meets with Dr. Flintstein, whose name should have clued him in that this whole scenario isn’t going to work out as expected, and arranges to have his soul deposited into a storage facility until the run of Uncle Vanya is completed.
David Strathairn, another brilliant character actor who has the ability to be both compassionate and a little sinister at the same time, portrays Flintstein. You may recall Strathairn from the Bourne movies, just about every John Sayles film, and his Academy Award nominated turn as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, Good Luck.
After about a week of being too happy, not connecting with the play and turning horrible and inappropriate performances at play rehearsals, Giamatti (the character) returns to Flintstein to reclaim his soul. It turns out that it’s better to suffer and be an artist than to be happy and be a hack. The two men are stunned to discover that Giamatti’s soul has been stolen and sold on the Russian black market soul trade. A Russian soul mule (a woman who transports the souls of oppressed Russian worker to America) has heisted Giamatti’s soul and delivered it to her boss, who in turn gives it to his wife, a soap opera actress who wants the soul of one of the world’s greatest actors. She thinks she’s getting Al Pacino’s soul; she has no idea who Paul Giamatti (the actor) is.
Giamatti (the character) and the Russian mule (Dina Korzun, in a sad, empathetic performance) must then go to Russia so that Giamatti can bargain for his soul.
Cold Souls is a dark comedy with many laugh out loud moments, thanks, mostly, to the brilliance of Giamatti (the actor). He is that rare actor that shares one of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest gifts: the ability to evoke pathos without uttering a single word. One look at Giamatti and you want to root for him, even when he’s being a dick. In Cold Souls, Giamatti’s character is a good man who just wants to get through his performances and stay sane. He’s a decent husband, although he keeps the whole soul business from his understanding wife (an underused Emily Watson), when he takes on the soul of an oppressed Russian woman (to fill the void of missing his own soul), Giamatti makes a point to track down the woman to help her.
Barthes themes (such as: What constitutes a soul? What make s a person good or bad? What happens to the soul after we die?) are important questions that are rarely addressed in mainstream movies. The director handles theses deep issues the guise of the dark comedy with a sure hand. Although Cold Souls is only her second feature, Barthes shows that she has a remarkable gift for dialogue and creating a specific mood to the scene. Moreover, the actors all give rich performances, a credit to Barthes direction.
The overall look of the movie is muted, with mostly shades of brown and gray. A majority of the film involves handheld camera, which has become the norm in independent cinema. This style offers a quick way to shoot and often allows the actors to keep working and finding their character while the camera is rolling. It also allows the actors to stay in the moment instead of waiting for the next lighting set up to take place. Many times this aesthetic can be annoying and distracting to a motion picture. In Cold Souls it adds to the intimacy of the story and makes us, the viewer, feel much closer to Giamatti (the character and actor).
Cold Souls came and went at the box office and hopefully it will find a broader and second life on DVD.