In an interesting interview on screencave.com, Cold Souls writer/director Sophie Barthes claims the central idea for the movie came from a dream in which she and Woody Allen found themselves standing in front of boxes containing their respective extracted souls. On taking a peek, Woody was offended to discover that his looked like a chickpea. She refused to look at hers…then woke up.
Intriguing, but promising story kernels are a dime a dozen. Strewth, I’ve dreamed up a few myself. It’s in the development of that initial premise where plots come unstuck, especially with scifi and absurdist drama. Cold Souls straddles both genres without fitting neatly into either. But it works and works well, maintaining an internal logic that anchors it in a sense of plausibility defying its absurdist elements, a la Kafka or Nikolai Gogol (my favourite Russian author, to indulge in an irrelevant aside).
The lead is superbly played by Paul Giamatti playing himself – actually, several versions of himself. Worn down by intense rehearsals of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, he makes an appointment with a high-tech company specialising in extracting and storing souls. The company CEO, Dr Flintstein (David Strathairn), sells Giamatti on the anxiety-releasing benefits of being de-souled and he signs on the dotted line, intending to have his soul restored once the play is finished. Unhappy with the results of the extraction, he subsequently asks for his soul back, but is horrified to discover that it has been removed to Russia by a soul-trafficking ‘mule’ (Dina Korzun) catering for a thriving black market. Making do with a hired substitute soul (extracted from a Russian poet), Giamatti flies to Russia to get his own soul back, but there are obstacles in the way…
Barthes wrote the screenplay with Giamatti in mind, and it shows: his part fits him perfectly – as well it might, since he’s playing ‘himself’! But which ‘self’? The Giamatti playing Uncle Vanya? The one playing Giamatti without a soul? The one with the soul of the Russian poet? More complicated than meets the eye, nyet?
Whatever, he brings just the right balance of humour and pathos to his performance. And while he’s the standout as the lead character, all the actors are terrific.
As is the cinematography, which draws on the winter light of New York and St Petersburg, Russia to set a tone reflective of Giamatti’s dark moods and inner turmoil. The cinematographer is Barthes’ partner in life and art, Andrij Parekh, and such is their harmony of purpose in this their 4th collaboration that Barthes declares Cold Souls “a film by us.”
Cold Souls is not the best movie I’ve seen in this year of truly outstanding cinematic output, but it’s pretty bloody good – both as entertainment and as a thought-provoking investigation into what makes us who we are.
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