FilmEdge caught up with COLD SOULS, writer/director Sophie Barthes‘ existential dark comedy about an actor struggling with his starring role in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and the emotional toll it takes on his life. The actor is question is the wonderful Paul Giamatti playing none other than actor Paul Giamatti in this oddly twisted dramedy asking what it means to be human.
When Giamatti’s personal and professional angst overwhelms him as he prepares to play the emotionally turbulent role of Vanya, he wishes he could unburden his soul and enjoy his life again. Enter the story’s somewhat bizarre sci-fi conceit: soul storage, a new technology which can extract the human soul from the body and bottle it for safe keeping. This conceit is so common place in this slightly altered world that Giamatti reads about it in a magazine article, referred by his agent of course.
Giamatti explores extraction with the technology founder (David Strathairn), who runs this popular business like a cross between a medical clinic and a tanning center, so casually has soul forfeit become in society. Certainly the idea reads rather silly when described, but within the film’s satirical context, viewers can easily buy into it since the story refuses to take itself too seriously.
Apparently souls come in all shapes, sizes and forms from cloudy wisps of dark smoke to lava lamp blobs, each unique to its human host. Giamatti is so fearful of learning about his own soul he refuses to see it upon extraction, though much of his self-centered anxiety abates after the procedure. Paul’s’ wife (Emily Watson) is the first to notice his lack of feelings and human connection, though given his volatile artistic nature, his initial transformation appears to be one more phase of his ongoing anxiety.
Alas, the promise of soul extraction fails to deliver for the actor, who now cannot emote at all while rehearsing his play. Giamatti’s attempts to force an emotional performance offer some laughs as he tries to take Vanya in a ‘different direction’ by showing the lighter side of Chekhov’s play. Likewise Paul has lost all ability to socialize, embarrassing his wife and a family friend at dinner with his uncaring candor. Typically, and rather unoriginally in this otherwise distinctive tale, dealing away one’s soul turns out to be a bad bargain.
When Giamatti attempts to get back his soul, it’s gone missing! Well, not missing as much as stolen by a Russian soul smuggler Nina (Dina Korzun) who transports others souls to sell or rent on the black market. Unfortunately, every soul — including Giamatti’s tempestuous one — leaves a bit of itself behind in Nina, who develops an unlikely attachment to the actor having experienced first-hand some of his angst and artistic temperament. The same will go for the Russian actress-wannabe who buys Giamatti’s soul after being told it belonged to Al Pacino. Watching Sveta (Kathryn Winnick) grouse through a Russian soap opera as Pacino via Paul Giamatti’s style is a stand out comedic moment to be sure.
The rest of the plot is for viewers to follow without spoiling, and an oddly toned trip it is with a strong independent film vibe throughout (following its Grand Jury Prize nomination at last year’s Sundance Festival). The results are a bit darker than comedic, though Giamatti has a gift for turning inner turmoil into physically manifested laughs. Barthes’ script and direction zero in on the guts of Paul’s love/hate relationship with his suffering, while her direction takes a detached near-documentary visual style in observing his plight. Likewise Watson and Strathairn’s characters stay on even keels in the wake of Giamatti’s turmoil, which tends to keep viewers at a distance as well.
A less restrained exploring the comedy of his existential battle between human suffering and soulless disconnect in the world would have made this film more inviting, though Giamatti’s skills and branded charm on-screen keep it palatable and worth the journey. COLD SOULS can get a bit chilly at times, and Barthes’ story of an artist surrendering and fighting to regain his soul might be a bit too character-specific to be as universally applicable as the commentary on modern social and human detachment intends to be. The 21st century satire would be just as comfortable in the 1970s era of future dystopia films in both its attitude and scope, but is clearly a product of our self-isolated times of technological cocooning.
Many will find COLD SOULS an acquired taste and perhaps less funny than expected, but those yearning for small-scaled independent spirit and the uniquely branded dark comedy that Giamatti delivers will warm up to this film. Minimal DVD Bonus Features include a slideshow of concept art and photos on designing the soul extractor machine, seven deleted scenes, and trailers for three other Fox Searchlight titles. FilmEdge rates COLD SOULS 3 out of 5 stars.