I guess if you’ve got a film from a writer/director named Barthes, even though in this case it’s Sophie, you’ve got to at least imagine you’re going to see something out of the ordinary. And if you get a chance to see Cold Souls, her first shot at a feature length production, you’ll discover very quickly that you imagined correctly. Because Cold Souls is a quirky comic drama with surrealistic overtones, just the kind of thing that would have warmed the intellectual heart of even a Barthes named Roland.
The film stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Giamatti. Giamatti is, of all things, an actor. He is in a thoroughly depressed state because he is rehearsing for a stage production of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, a play which never had a problem depressing anyone, and he is having significant trouble dealing with his role. He can’t sleep. He wanders about aimlessly. He is going through his own personal dark night of the soul. Then, in of all places The New Yorker, he reads about an organization which deals in soul extraction and storage. He visits the outfit’s high tech facility where he meets the medical director played by David Strathairn who, much like a salesman pushing a nose job or liposuction, explains the advantages of soul separation. There may even be some echoes of selling the soul to the devil, although nothing overt. Devastated by his depression, Giamatti is willing to try anything, and he agrees to the extraction.
The plot gets complicated with the introduction of a gang of soul dealers from Russia who are using Russian women as mules to smuggle souls in and out of the United States. One of these, played by Dina Korzun, steals Giamatti’s soul for her boss’s wife an aspiring actress who wants a soul of an American actor, preferably Al Pacino. When Giamatti decides he wants his soul back, he discovers that it is missing and the film follows his attempt to find out what happened and then get it back. While the premise here is something you might associate with a film maker like Charlie Kaufman, the film never gets quite that far out. More importantly after the initial premise, it plays out fairly conventionally.
Giamatti’s performance is fine tuned. He is at his best in the Uncle Vanya rehearsal scenes. He plays it with his own soul, without any soul, with a transplanted soul of what he thinks is a Russian poet, and each time he manages precise differentiation. He is also good at bedraggled depression. Emily Watson plays his unsuspecting wife who senses something strange going on but can’t quite comprehend what it is. Michael Tucker, he of L. A. Law, plays a frazzled director. Katheryn Winnick is the Russian actress in want of an American soul, and there is one scene at the end for Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) as a hedge fund manager.
Although billed as a comedy, Cold Souls has very few laugh out loud moments. Giamatti is offended that his soul when extracted is something very like a chick pea. One expects an artist to have a ‘great’ soul. Souls on display at the storage facility tend to be black or brown or gray. Then, of course, there is the irony that it is a Chekov play they are rehearsing as well as that it is The New Yorker that proffers the medical information. The closest thing to a slapstick moment comes when Gaimatti manages to drop his newly extracted soul on the floor of Strathairn’s office. What you get here are smiles and intellectual chuckles, not belly laughs. For a first effort, Barthes has produced a very intriguing film, a film which promises well for the future.