Cold Souls should have been released in the winter. The new film by Sophie Barthes starring Paul Giamatti is a philosophical adventure without much philosophy or adventure.
The quote on the website reads: “A Delicious Fable…Flat-Out Funny”. I respectfully disagree. A fable is a story with a moral. In Cold Souls the moral is auspiciously missing. Be careful messing with your body. Be yourself even if you don’t know who you are. Watch out for quick fixes, they might be well-laid traps. If given the opportunity to switch souls with someone, consult your wife first. These are more like suggestions.
And I did not find it flat-out funny. It is, perhaps, flat-funny, as in deadpan. Funny because of the absurd simplicity that drives the action. The quick decisions that spiral into a Cold War noir without the threat of violence. Funny for all the explanation, analysis, science, philosophy, mystery and thrill that are left out. Funny for the thought that Paul Giamatti’s life might really be how we superficially imagine it to be, like that of a groundhog with a hangover. But not, as it were, funny.
Souls are, for some reason, identified by the nationalities and professions of their original inhabitors: a Russian poet, an American actor, etc. Removing his soul makes Giamatti feel “lighter.” Lighter in what way? Professionally? Can he get more work done? Less? Physically? Does it make him a better dancer? Emotionally? Can he still love? Motivationally? Has he lost his muse? Nobody knows. As an audience we run through this rolodex of effects like a hamster on Ritalin, but to little avail. The soul, apparently, doesn’t do much to dictate how we are, but it is something that, for no reason at all, we desperately want to hold onto.
Despite a reference to Heraclitus here and Descartes there, the film quickly makes clear that’s it not as ambitious as, say, Charlie Kaufman would have written it. And yet, no matter how often I wanted someone to pull out a gun and a bottle of vodka, it never happened. I thought we were in Russia for God’s sake!
This movie is the best vehicle yet for Giammati, who’s clearly a fine actor even if one we prefer to watch suffer. He carries the action through offices that look like IKEA escape pods, dank hotel rooms and snow-drenched Russian streets – between settings in turn corporate feel-good and social feel-not – with characteristic reluctance. A chicken with his soul cut off.
A shaky camera and a Russian winter don’t make anyone a poet. But Cold Souls is not a vapid and wanting movie. It merely feels vapid and leaves one wanting. Given that it rests on the new science of soul extraction, I’d say that’s rather fitting.