Cold Souls (United States/France/Russia, 2009)

August 11, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Cold Souls Poster

The chief pleasure to be derived from watching Cold Souls is that it's a journey into the unexpected. To one degree or another, even the best screenplays tend to follow projectable trajectories, even when the specifics are obfuscated. Cold Souls travels so far off the beaten trail that it's difficult to discern where it might be going. Granted, the final destination is more conventional than one might expect from such an offbeat motion picture, but this is one of those movies where the journey counts more than the arrival. There aren't many analogs available; it bears a passing resemblance to the twisted conceptions of Charlie Kauffman, but even that is an imperfect comparison.

The film's underlying premise is that the "soul" is an organ like any other in the human body and, by use of sophisticated machinery, it can be extracted with little fuss and no blood. Soul extraction is a big business - there's a soul black market, souls are donated anonymously, they are shipped overseas, and people can have their souls swapped out for those of others. All it takes is the money to pay for the operation and the willingness to live a soulless life. (One throw-away joke is that in the catalog of available souls, a Hollywood screenwriter is represented.)

Paul Giamatti, playing a warped version of himself, is finding it tough going while rehearsing for a stage production of "Uncle Vanya." His soul is weighing him down so, without discussing it with his wife, Claire (Emily Watson), he visits the soul removal clinic run by Dr. Flinstein (David Strathairn). After the consultation, Paul agrees to have his soul removed but, once the procedure is completed, he finds that life is hollow. His acting has lost its edge and he no longer loves his wife. However, when he returns to Dr. Flintstein to have his soul re-inserted, it has disappeared. He learns that a "soul mule" named Nina (Dina Korzun) has taken it to Russia where it now resides within a beautiful but vapid soap opera star (Katheryn Winnick).

The strength of Cold Souls' comedy comes from its sense of the absurd. There are scenes in which actors have completely straight, sometimes passionate conversations about nonsensical topics like soul removal. The key to this working is that the actors don't do this slyly or tongue-in-cheek. We know it's ridiculous but the characters treat it as a matter of great seriousness, and therein lies the humor. It's funny and it's intended to be funny. There are other instances where things are more blatantly irreverent, such as a scene in which Paul Giamatti is on his knees searching for his chick pea-shaped soul, which has fallen out of its carrying case. ("Be careful! Don't step on it!")

The metaphor of the physical soul representing the metaphysical one is so obvious that it hardly merits a mention. Similarly, there's nothing subtle about the "message" that people need the darkness and weight that comes with conscience in order to be complete. Sophie Barthes, making her feature debut, has fashioned a scenario that is more clever than brilliant. There is one instance when her aspirations as a screenwriter aren't met by her abilities as a director. A key scene near the end is intended to convey something powerful and artistic but it comes across as little more than a jumble of images that don't add up to much. They're sufficient to suggest that the director is trying to convey something, but the sequence is not put together in such a way that we're sure precisely what she's trying to convey beyond the obvious (that the soul is an integral part of the person).

Paul Giamatti once again proves that he is one of the best around when portraying a sad sack. No one does it quite as well. And, although he plays most of his scenes for comedic effect, there are some instances when he taps into a degree of pathos that is touching. David Strathairn's straight-faced, ultra-serious interpretation of the soul removing doctor (based on a shyster plastic surgeon) is on-target. Dina Korzun has a nice femme fatale quality that allows us to wonder for a while whether there's a thriller element in all of this. And, although Emily Watson is fine during her screen time, she is underused. I kept expecting more from this character because, as it exists, it could have been played by any "no name" character actress.

Cold Souls boasts a great premise and, for the most part, it is well executed. The problems that exist, which are likely the result of the director not being experienced and the budget being limiting, are surmountable. For those who like comedies that derive humor through absurd situations and dialogue rather than through more lowbrow methods, this film is worth taking a chance on.

Cold Souls (United States/France/Russia, 2009)

Director: Sophie Barthes
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dina Korzun, David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Katheryn Winnick
Screenplay: Sophie Barthes
Cinematography: Andrij Parekh
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
U.S. Distributor: The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2009-08-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Brief Nudity)
Subtitles: Some Russian with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1