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Want to Be Soulless?
by Martin Malloy on Aug 14, 2009
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.
Weighed down by your soul? How about taking someone elseís soul? Those are the questions that Sophie Barthes ponders in her feature debut as writer and director. The film, which stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Giamatti, is definitely going to draw comparison to the work of Charlie Kaufman, and thatís fair, but Cold Souls does stand apart from his work. Barthes isnít as successful as Kaufman is in meandering through the metaphysical and psychological mysteries of life, but Cold Souls proves that she is a truly capable filmmaker.
Like Kaufmanís debut Being John Malkovich, Cold Souls chronicles a philosophically confusing quest of a fictional Paul Giamatti. Also like Kaufmanís magnum opus Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where characters seek out a doctor who can erase their mind, Cold Souls centers around a new company where people can have their souls extracted. But Barthes isnít merely ripping Kaufman off -- philosophically twisting films of these sort have existed for decades (Bergman or Fellini anyone?) -- however, her basic plot appears to be very close with her acclaimed contemporary. So what should one make of these similarities? Nothing more than mere coincidence in a genre that is tough to master and isnít attempted as often as many others. But for all of Barthes attempts to create a name in the space (which she definitely does) Paul Giamatti may be the true savior of the film. The best decision Barthes made was to create Giamatti as the filmís protagonist.
Sure his name is Paul Giamatti and heís a famous actor, but heís surely not married to a British woman named Claire played by Emily Watson (his real wife is named Elizabeth and is a producer of Cold Souls) and he never gave up his soul. The emotional depth and weight of the filmís subject matter couldnít be riper for Giamatti. He makes it seem easy to lose yourself in a role -- one could believe this actually happened to him. Despite his best efforts to convince the audience otherwise, however, this is a fictional story.
In this work of fiction, Giamatti is preparing to play the title role in a production of the Chekov play, "Vanya". He canít seem to get past an emotional brick wall and feels at a loss for how to fully embody his character. After a suggestion from his agent, he visits a new company that claims to extract souls. After much (ahem) soul searching, he decides to free himself of this burden. Feeling a bit hollow at first, he finds that his life is now devoid of any stress or emotional weight. He instantly feels happier, but itís those around him who notice the new hollowness, which has done nothing to help him act better and is hurting his relationship with his wife. What he discovers is that being soulless only makes him more aloof to the natural struggles of life. When he finally decides he wants his soul back, he and the company, are surprised to discover that itís missing.
Thereís also the story of Nina (Dina Korzun), a Russian soul mule that parallels Giamattiís search for self-discovery. Because soul extraction is a relatively new business, no laws really exist that restrict ďsoul trafficking". So there exists an underground business between a Russian businessman (Ninaís brother) and Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) who runs the New York company. To successfully move souls across the two continents, she must embody them on her trips, allowing her to see into the ones she takes. Her role is silent for most of the film and Korzun plays the part perfectly and mysteriously. Of course, her and Giamattiís paths will soon cross.
Despite a phenomenal performance by Giamatti, and the rest of the cast, the film doesnít quite hold together. Barthes direction is adequate and the ambiance is mysterious, but something just feels missing (no pun intended). Perhaps the faults can be found in the writing. While she obviously doesnít aspire to be Kaufman in tone, he is able to tightly bound heavily philosophical ideas in an intelligently satisfying yet entertaining way. Much of Kaufman can be viewed as comedic and while Barthes has her moments of laughter, Cold Souls remains largely dramatic in scope. Her characters arenít as inherently funny and she takes them much more seriously. What she could learn (along with many other writers) from Kaufman is how to create a more solid story. She has the pieces there, but they never feel as if they ever fully come together. What Barthes does well is create a quite likeable film thatís entertaining, but doesnít produce the lasting effects she was most likely hoping for.
by Martin Malloy on Aug 14, 2009