[Yes, Cold Souls' time has come and gone in North America but with the film screening here at the Sitges Festival now seems a good time to revisit one of the years quiet gems.]
A darkly absurd, surreal high concept scifi comedy, Sophie Barthes' Cold Souls plays like a Charlie Kaufman film on quaalude. Though it may be just a touch too sedate at times it is nonetheless a striking, sensitive and very funny piece of work - a return to shambolic form for Paul Giamatti and, along with Duncan Jones' Moon, another encouraging sign that Hollywood is showing a renewed willingness to support intelligent scifi for adults rather than just making things go boom.
Paul Giamatti is Paul Giamatti. Except for when he's not. See, here's the thing ... the successful New York actor is preparing for a stage version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and has become so immersed in the character that it is causing him panic attacks and physical pain. Giamatti doesn't want to quit but he can't go on like this for any longer, either. His solution is found in a New Yorker article proclaiming the benefits of soul storage. Soul is causing you trouble? Simple! Take it out!
And so he does. His soul is removed. It looks strangely like a chick pea. It is put into a jar and into cold storage and Giamatti is sent on his merry way home, no longer plagued by panic and fear. Of course, the problem now is that he doesn't feel much of anything. This is a problem when your job is to embody and portray feelings and his wife isn't any happier about the situation than is his director. Putting his own soul back in place isn't really an option - no good being frozen by panic again - but what about someone else's? A Russian poet would do just fine.
Russian? Yep, the Russians are behind the whole scheme - controlling the New York office from afar while harvesting Russian souls and muling them to America with a group of women who swap souls in on the Russian side, fly to America, and swap them out again. It's a bit shady but ideal for our Paul who now has seemingly the perfect soul to portray his character. That is it's perfect until his body rejects it and Paul discovers that his own soul has been stolen and transported back to Russia where it is now in the body of a b-level soap opera actress who figured her career could use the boost that a famous American actor's soul would give her ...
Cold Souls boasts a truly intriguing premise and a stellar cast - David Straithearn, Lauren Ambrose and Emily Watson join Giamatti - and writer-director Barthes does a remarkable job of making her outlandish premise feel not only possible but actually perfectly reasonable. Rather than going the broad, slapstick route Barthes consistently underplays the comedy, preferring to treat Giamatti's condition as a serious dramatic problem and allowing the comedy to arise naturally out of Giamatti's growing panic and the overall absurdity of the situation rather than laying on the punchlines. And while it's hard not to see what sort of film this would have been in the hands of a Kaufman or Gondry or Jonez - a much broader and probably more commercial one - Barthes' film has a quiet strength to it that is more than worthwhile.
But worthwhile is not quite perfect and Could Souls is limited by Barthes' surprising - shocking, really - failure to address the issue of what the soul actually is or how it affects people in any meaningful sense. Despite making a film in which souls are removed and traded at the whims of men and commerce, Barthes' only actual statement on what the soul is amounts to saying that it's a mystery and leaving it there. And, frankly, without saying something more about it than that it's hard to see why Giamatti cares so much about getting his own soul back. It doesn't seem to do very much for him other than preventing him from the occasional bit of inappropriate behavior, so why all the fuss? Likewise, Barthes introduces the idea that the women muling the souls are slowly accumulating fragments of the souls they transport within themselves - a truly fascinating idea with immense potential that goes entirely unexplored.
Cold Souls is a good film, a very good one even, one filled with excellent performances in a compelling world. But it's hard to shake the feeling that Barthes here comes oh-so-close to creating something truly exceptional, only to shy away at the last moment.