I went to see Cold Souls only knowing the barest minimum about it. I was expecting a film that had a strong, but dark, comedic undercurrent as it made a statement about the nature of self and that indefinable element that makes you you and not someone else. I was also expecting to see another strong performance from Paul Giamatti. I was right on the Giamatti front, but when it comes to the substance of said film, I cannot help but feel underwhelmed.
The high concept behind the film is that the soul is a physical thing that can be removed from the body and stored, or even placed into another body. This process, which is never completely explained in the film, is used as the backdrop for a central character who is unhappy and looking to make a change in life. The issue revolves around whether that change is due to internal or external causes and whether or not it is something he needs to deal with himself. I think. It could also be about what our souls look like and the wide varieties they come in.
As the film opens, we meet Paul Giamatti (played by Paul Giamatti). He is depressed and feels helpless while performing in the play Uncle Vanya. His agent recommends that he look into this "soul storage" thing as a way to help take the pressure off. So, Paul goes to the extraction and storage offices where he is told by Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) that, to save on taxes, he can have it shipped to their New Jersey storage facility post-removal.
It goes without saying that Paul goes through with the process (otherwise we would not have a movie). Afterward, Paul begins to think about what he's done, not to mention the fact that it did not quite have the desired effect. The facility also offers the renting of other souls and Paul ends up with the soul of a Russian, with very unexpected results.
The story picks up when Paul decides he wants his own soul back only to find it missing. This is when Paul learns that there is a black market in Russia for these disembodied souls, and that is where his has gone. Determined to get his soul, he goes to Russia with Nina, a soul mule for the Russians and the woman who took Paul's across the ocean.
Cold Souls is a strange, surreal, film that appears to be directly influenced by the work of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). It has that sort of strange, off-kilter feel to it, where things are not quite what they seem. First time feature writer/director Sophie Barthes did say that the story was inspired by Russian author Nikolai Gogol's tale Dead Souls, where a land owner buys the souls of dead serfs.
The film is certainly an interesting one, the sort of film that I think has more to it than meets the eye upon its initial viewing. It will be interesting to revisit this somewhere down the line and see how it holds up and if anything else reveals itself.
With that said, I must say that my initial viewing was a little underwhelming. The performances are fantastic, but the story fails to offer up very much. I was expecting a story that had much more to say on the surface. Perhaps that is my fault for bringing those ideas to the table. Even with my reservations, the directing is interesting, taking a slow leisurely approach, allowing everything to unfold slowly. It is a considerably different approach than your standard Hollywood release that insists on breakneck editing and a screenplay that explains everything (a note that seems to run counterpoint to my earlier story-related reservations). It is a fine line between too much and too little; fortunately, this has wonderful style to assist in its success.
As for the performances, everything hinges on Paul Giamatti's ability to convey it believably, and he does. The film is played straight with a comedic undercurrent, an approach that likely works better than all out comedy. Paul Giamatti brings a great charisma and talent to the screen. It was fascinating to watch him struggle to find the source of his problems and with his soul problems. It all leads to a quiet conclusion that has a certain sweetness to it.
Bottom line. I had hoped to love this more than I do, but I still admire it for being something different. Giamatti is a joy to watch, and the movie is really quite strange. It is well worth spending a little time with it.