Cold Souls 08/13/2009
Written & Directed by Sophia Barthes
Starring Paul Giamatti, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun
Cold Souls, the debut film from writer/director Sophia Barthes, is a film with an intriguing concept that fails to resonate or provide insight. The idea is certainly a good starting point for a film. What if our souls we’re tangible? What if, through a simple procedure, they could be extracted, so as to unburden us from its weight? Well, according to Barthes, there would be subsequent soul trafficking in which you can import the soul of your dreams from sketchy Russian soul-dealers. Also, as one might already assume going into this movie, a person is not completely whole when without their soul, and completely out of sync when in possession of one belonging to someone else. Such a concept requires a fleshed out story willing to delve into themes of the very nature of our souls. Cold Souls is a film unwilling to explore beyond it’s surface.
Distinguished actor Paul Giamatti plays a fictionalized version of himself. Currently in the rehearsal stage for the Russian play, Vanya, in which Giamatti is to play the lead. He finds himself unable to separate himself from his characters, and takes this struggle home with him each night. His agent tells him about this new procedure, where one can have their soul removed. Somewhat reluctantly, Giamatti undergoes the soul extraction. Once soulless, he feels lighter without the anxieties that once plagued him. However, when he returns to rehearsal, his performance is way off, much to the chagrin of the director and the other actors. His wife, played by Emily Watson, notices right away that there is something wrong with her husband. By the time Giamatti comes clean with her, his soul has been shipped to Russia and stolen by an aspiring actress in need of inspiration. Giamatti meets a “mule”, a Russian woman who smuggles souls into America, and they go in pursuit of his missing essence.
Although he may be playing himself, Paul Giamatti gives a solid performance, the one highlight of the film. He adds as much feeling as he can to a movie in desperate need of it. Co-stars such as Emily Watson also do what they can, but they are not given well-written characters to begin with, making it difficult for the audience to relate to what is on screen. When Giamatti’s character is soulless, he is noticeably different but not as extremely as I would have expected. If the filmmaker is trying to say something about how important our souls are, then this lack of change is one of her many missteps.
Sophia Barthes is clearly talented, as she somewhat successfully conducts the films consistent mood. However, she is not inventive enough to take her premise and make it into a worthwhile story. Her characters are uninteresting and underdeveloped. She seems unsure of whether she wants her film to be taken seriously, or as a quirky comedy. It is not smart enough to really be taken seriously, and not funny enough to truly be considered comic. Somewhat conceptually similar, the Charlie Kaufman scripted Being John Malkovich walked this line perfectly. Kaufman took an initially bizarre and fascinating concept and built an intellectual and darkly funny story, that explores identity. His characters were eccentric and involving, none more so than his fictionalized John Malkovich who was used creatively and intelligently, unlike Barthes’ usage of Paul Giamatti’s persona.
Cold Souls is a film that achieves absolutely nothing. It fails to go in depth at all, and provides no devastating or uplifting revelations about the human condition. Barthes is not able to emotionally invest us in her thin characters. Her story is dull and confused, and likely a forced afterthought. I won’t write off Sophia Barthes completely, as she has the potential to be a fresh cinematic presence, and this is a medium still starving for more female artists. I will be first in line for her sophomore effort, but Cold Souls is a movie to be avoided. Ironically, it is a film with no soul.
posted by adam cook