Google the word ‘soul’ and you’re flooded with 40 million links, all relating to jazz or religion. Cold Souls is interested in neither of these. With a trippy premise literally dreamed up by director Sophie Barthes, it is pensive and ponderous, offering a nod and wink to the likes of Philip K Dick and Charlie Kaufman. But it’s also peculiarly remote.
Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti (wink), suffering through his own interpretation of Russian stage play Uncle Vanya. Rehearsals are not going well: “It’s like somebody put my heart in a vice,” the actor wheezes after playing out a particularly overwrought scene. “You take things too seriously,” his director reasons, and this is true of both the character and the actor. Pitched as a lonely, irritable spirit, Giamatti shifts gravitas in spades, heaving his leaden soul around like a yoke. He barely cracks a smile for the entire hour and a half.
Then he happens upon Soul Storage; a company that does exactly what it says on the tin. It offers to cleave a person’s immortal soul from them and store it away where it can bother them no more. No attempts at scientific clarification here – Cold Souls is embedded resolutely in its own off-kilter reality that smartly sidesteps explanation. So when we learn that something called ‘soul trafficking’ is rife, and the narrative splits to encompass Russian soul-ferrying ‘mule’ Nina (Dina Korzun), it makes a perfect kind of non-sense.
Which all sounds very profound. And it sort of is. Barthes channels her native French cinema to produce something beautiful and overtly dreamy, with flickers of humour that buoy proceedings. Take these gems: Giamatti is disheartened when he discovers that his extracted soul resembles nothing more than a chickpea; while his outrage at his soul being ‘rented’ is second only to his horror that a Russian wannabe-actress is using it to thesp up a soap opera (“She’ll destroy it!”).
But quips aside, and despite all its chatter about the human spirit, Cold Souls remains disappointingly disaffecting. The tragic, seemingly doomed Nina – whose exorbitant trafficking has left her with so much ‘soul residue’ that she can probably never take back her own soul – strains for sympathy, but never quite attains it. And not even a location jump to Russia enlivens the film’s lethargic final act, with a Bond villain character quickly offloaded and any tension evaporating in the face of a silly kidnap plot. “Hollow, light, empty,” Giamatti murmurs as he describes his feelings of post-extraction soullessness. Funny how those adjectives apply to his film, too.
Anticipation: Cool premise, and Giamatti is pretty dependable. 4
Enjoyment: Slow burning and strangely distant. Still, there are some interesting ideas. 3
In Retrospect: Thought provoking but elusive, Cold Souls’ theories blanket any feeling, making this all sadly soulless. 3
Via Little White Lies