London Film Festival ’09: Cold Souls
Directed by Sophie Barthes
Charlie Kaufman’s attorneys must be pleased. The first phrase one grasps at to describe Sophie Barthes debut feature, Cold Souls, is ‘Kaufmanesque’: a metaphysical comedy with an absurd, fantastical central proposition, be it a machine that erases memories of a failed love affair or a puppet master accessing the consciousness of a well respected character actor. In Cold Souls, the story is no less outlandish, concerning, as it does, a medical procedure that surgically extracts and stores people’s souls, an idea inspired by a dream that Barthes had (appropriately enough) featuring her and Woody Allen in a doctor’s waiting room only to discover that he had the soul of chickpea. Speaking as someone who finds nothing in life more tedious than other people telling you how crazy and wacky their dreams are, Cold Souls initially sounded like a potentially horrific experience, and while it doesn’t have the prowess to fully realize its intriguing premise, it does possess a certain quiet charisma and a fine central performance in its meta-narrative world.
Paul Giamatti is Paul Giamatti – yes it’s one of those films – an actor in the clutches of existential ennui, a crisis accelerated by rehearsals of a stage production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, which has resulted in Giamatti finding it impossible to access the core of his character or to reach a sense of artistic and spiritual fulfillment. Unbeknown to his wife (Emily Watson) Giamatti a special clinic he found via a New Yorker article where the energetic Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) explains the soul transplant process, a procedure that should assist in the achievement of a sort of nirvana, a state of not being tormented or afflicted by any personal demons, while at the same time remaining unmoved and unaffected by beauty, humour and inspiration. A hesitant Giamatti agrees to the procedure which initially appears to solve his problems, but his satisfaction soon dovetails into nervous panic which results in his receiving a soul transplant from another patient, conveniently enough a Russian poet whose insights should assist in his difficult theatre rehearsals. An initially confusing side plot involving Soviet women traveling to New York to traffick in souls sold by destitute Eastern bloc denizens to affluent middle class east coast Americans melds into the Giamatti narrative as he desperately seeks to restore his quintessence after suffering distressing flashbacks and memories from his Soviet soul, eventually discovering that his psyche was unfortunately sold to an aspiring Russian actress who wanted the artistic illumination of a Robert De Niro or Al Pacino.
Cold Souls certainly has that faint air of whimsical magical realism that abounds in films such as Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, but it doesn’t quite hold the same level of charm and innovative immolation. After a promising and entertaining first half hour the premise runs out of steam as do the gags. There are some funny moments and lines – ‘What do you mean my soul will be stored in New Jersey? I can’t send my soul to New Jersey,’ and some playful musing on the repercussions of being a ‘soul mule’ (being left with the trace remnants of the numerous spirits that have been ferried over the years), but overall the core of the film feels slight and doesn’t quite have the conviction or inspiration to fully exemplify its central idea.
Paul Giamatti is solid as usual with a deft touch of subtle neurosis. The weight of the film hangs on his performance and he acquits himself admirably amongst a parade of barely focused supporting characters. It feels as if Barthes, having constructed these allusions to a chemically paralyzed middle class who seek miracle cures for their spiritually devoid lives in the latest medical fad, didn’t quite know how to conquer the all important third act and is unable to take her characters to a logical and satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, there are some laughs to be had and at worst the film could at least ignite some spiritual thoughts and discussions on your journey home.