Monday, August 24, 2009

Movie Review: Cold Souls

Laurel Hill Cemetery last week.
I am not going to lie. I was thinking of Buffy the whole time - even during the dramatic readings of The Black Cat. Every tomb we passed, I thought, "Oooh, now that one looks like Spike's place. Oh, wait, no...that one. Wait...." There were a whole lot of crypts up in there.

The night before we attended a Poe inspired tour of Philadelphia's famous Laurel Hill Cemetery, I saw Cold Souls which, as the title would indicate, centers around the soul. A cemetery is sort of a soulless place, but not spiritless and it got me thinking about life, death, and all that shit. But, then I remembered I have a movie review to write and I've been woefully neglectful of this here blog and I should really get my ass in gear. So, here we go, movie review to

Cold Souls writer/director, Sophie Barthes once stood in line with Woody Allen both held a box that contained their respective souls. This dream inspired a story and the not quite finished screenplay ended up in the hands of Paul Giamatti – who, not so coincidentally, shares the same name with the main character. Cold Souls, now playing at The Ritz 5, tells the story of a sort of famous actor names Paul Giamatti who, in order to cope with playing a very heavy Chekov character for the stage, decides to give his tortured soul a lift by simply getting rid of it for a few weeks. Paul explores this avenue after reading a New Yorker profile on the company, which is conveniently located on lovely Roosevelt Island. The result of this soul extraction is wonderfully disastrous as things only get worse when Paul’s soul is caught up in the seedy world of soul trafficking.

Who would have thought that souls could be neatly kept in glass jars stored in refrigerated safety deposit box and that they come in all shapes and sizes from a shriveled prune to a tiny bean? Barthes first feature length film, an absurdist tale based on a flimsy metaphor is darkly comedic but also dives deeper into the very souls (sorry!) of its characters. Why would an actor choose to give up his soul? One would think a soul is very important for that craft in particular. But common sense does not drive human decision-making and the film version of Paul Giamatti is one twisted and self-involved individual. This soul searching hinges on Paul’s inability to face his own demons, his own depths and fears. When his lack of a soul causes him to perform as if William Shattner, of all people, were doing Uncle Vanya, his career is threatened. And Paul finds that way more frightening than the actual state of soullessness. When his soul is “misplaced” and a loner soul begins to haunt him he goes on a desperate search to get that piece of himself back.

Paul Giamatti as Paul Giamatti in the Soul Extracter 2000.

This persona of Paul Giamatti is the center of Barthes storytelling and no other actor could take us through this sometimes funny, sometimes bleak world. Giamatti gives us a tortured and overwrought film version of himself. He sums it up well when meeting with Dr. Flintstein the proprietor of the soul storage company, played by a smooth talking David Strathairn, “I don’t need to be happy, I just don’t want to suffer.”

Giamatti is backed by the incomparable Emily Watson, playing his fictional and incredibly patient wife, Claire. Dina Korzun is Nina, the soul-trafficking Russian who has transported so many in her own body that her own soul is made up of trace imprints from others. Nina might be Barthes visual muse as much as Paul is her voice and she balances them well, the quiet and pensive Russian and the self-absorbed New York actor. Barthes manages to find an equally compelling relationship with the tone of the film, which moves from dark comedy to just plain dark, and the transitions from internal to external. Barthes illustrates the inner soul in a dreamlike yet grounded way, steering clear of the maudlin and overly emblematic.

Strathairn & Giamatti examining the shriveled up prune of a soul supposedly belonging to a super famous actor or something.

Could Souls can be a little self indulgent and maybe a bit too arty in many respects, but don’t let that be a turn off. Never does it pander or claim to know more than its audience. It is about real, yet intangible things that every living thing shares. Yes, the filmmaker’s hand is heavy at times as she utilizes many goofy focus techniques and a bland dank palette. But, Cold Souls has a great beauty in the raw and authentic emotions that leak out of the actors through all the layers of ridiculousness and absurdity. The sometimes slow moving picture with deliberately vague concepts about the soul creates a huge space for interpretation and for Paul Giamatti to do some of his best work. Cold Souls is an incredibly thoughtful, funny and charismatic effort by this first time director.

Cold Souls
Now playing Dir/Writ.: Sophie Barthes
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dina Korzun & Emily Watson

Rated: PG-13 for strong language and nudity - though I can't seem to recall either.