Written and Directed by: Sophie Barthes
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dina Korzun, Emily Watson, David Strathairn, Katheryn Winnick, Lauren Ambrose
What is a soul, and how does this soul define us as human beings? That is the central question in the low-budget film Cold Souls, written and directed by Sophie Barthes. The film stars Paul Giamatti (part of the Oscar Snub Club with Sam Rockwell) as, erm, Paul Giamatti who is in the midst of rehearsals for the Chekov play Vanya. Feeling overwhelmed, overburdened, and unable to work, he is looking for any solution to help this problem.
He finds it in an article in The New Yorker, which tells of a place that removes the soul from a person. Intrigued, Paul visits the company, which is run by Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), who tells him that a person’s soul is not just an abstract idea as originally thought; it is an appendage to the body, much like a spleen or a kidney and can be removed with ease. Although uncomfortable with the idea of this procedure, Paul’s desperation causes him to have his soul removed, and he comes face to face with the notion that his soul is nothing more than the size of a chickpea. He has it stored at the facility until the run of Vanya has ended, but when he returns to retrieve it, it is gone.
Souls, it turns out, are a lucrative if small business, where they hit the black market and people can gain the soul of someone else instead of their own. Paul’s soul is â€œborrowedâ€ by a â€œmuleâ€, a Russian woman named Nina (Dina Korzun), who brings it to Russia through implanting it inside of herself for her boss’s wife, who is an aspiring soap actress looking for a â€œHollywoodâ€ soul to up her game and make her a better performer. This leads Paul in an attempt to regain his soul and the film proceeds to get philosophical about the idea of a soul and its necessity to the essence of a human being.
Cold Souls has been compared to Being John Malkovich by some critics and viewers (including a friend of mine) and I do get some of the similarities; both films involve a main character playing himself and the idea of switching personas to be someone else, although Being John Malkovich does this to a more literal and extreme extent. The thing is, while I saw Kaufman elements in the movie, Cold Souls is a lot slower and goes into different ideas, being able to distinguish itself from what people have compared it to.
Giamatti puts in another great performance, playing a depressed version of himself. He seems to be the go to guy for sad sacks in Hollywood, and there is no one better at this role than him. He carries the filmÂ just by being so ridiculously talented and gives the somewhat ludicrous plot some gravitas. Dina Korzun also does great with her side of the film. Although Paul deals with the loss of the soul, Korzun’s Nina is in the business of souls and acts as a mule, letting herself be injected with them to bring them overseas. Each soul leaves some residue though, and with so many trips, she is beginning to lose hope that she can even get her own back.
Her story is just as captivating as Paul’s, although as a Russian, she speaks in that language for a good amount of her scenes. It may have been the online screener I reviewed (LEGALLY viewed by the way), but her scenes with her boss and other Russians did not have subtitles, so you are left to just soak in what is going on and to use your own mind to decipher what is happening. I personally got into that as the movie progressed, but I can see the average moviegoer being annoyed at the lack of subtitles during these scenes and letting their minds wander.
Cold Souls is not a traditional Hollywood movie; it’s slow, plodding, and full of ideas rather than action. Not everyone will like this film, but for those who embrace the premise (which isn’t hard to do, as it’s presented realistically and plausibly) will find great enjoyment out of this. If you like the slower foreign films, you will definitely dig Cold Souls. As a big Giamatti fan, his performance alone was worth the watch and I think that if people give this a chance, they can treat themselves to a movie that is off-beat and makes you think; a nice reprieve from the stuff Hollywood usually feeds the masses. — Jonathan