sat 29/01/2022

Cold Souls | reviews, news & interviews

Cold Souls

Cold Souls

Being Paul Giamatti: the king of the sad sacks in Cold Souls

Souled-out: Dr Flintstein (David Strathairn) and Paul Giamatti (Paul Giamatti).

Cold Souls is a disquieting existential comedy bursting with nutty ideas. The trouble is that most of them belong to Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s game-changing 1999 screwball classic.

Paul Giamatti, undisputed king of the sad sacks following his arias of despair in Sideways and American Splendour, plays Paul Giamatti, a discontented actor preparing to play the title role in an off-Broadway Uncle Vanya. After struggling through rehearsals, he reads a New Yorker article about a clinic on Roosevelt Island which performs a soul extraction process to alleviate angst. Sure enough, there it is in the Yellow Pages.

When Giamatti visits Dr Flintstein (David Strathairn), he is told that each soul is placed in storage, or else shipped to New Jersey to avoid sales tax. The souls themselves vary in appearance, and when the actor agrees to undergo the procedure, he is dismayed to find that his own specimen resembles closely a chickpea.

The echoes of Being John Malkovich are so overwhelming that the richest pickings tend to be on the periphery

But after his temporary soullessness results in a superficial Vanya, Giamatti opts for a transplant which leaves him with the soul of a Russian poet. This is one of many such souls smuggled into the US by Nina (the haunting Dina Korzun), a "mule" whose own soul has been expunged to make space for her contraband cargo. You can hear the gears grinding in the script as the film’s writer-director Sophie Barthes struggles to yoke these plots together, but the later scenes in which Giamatti hotfoots it to St Petersburg with Nina to recapture his lost soul are by far the least satisfying.

The echoes of Being John Malkovich are so overwhelming throughout Cold Souls that the richest pickings tend to be found on the periphery. I liked the design of the soul-removal machine into which Giamatti is fed; it resembles a giant, ceramic toilet-roll. (The control panel, with its yellow button marked "Extract", suggests a Fisher Price computer.) Out in the waiting room, we overhear a disgruntled customer asking the receptionist: “Are you saying my dog is soul-less?”

These nifty touches, and the dusky cinematography by Andrij Parekh, aren’t enough to make the film feel like anything more than a shaggy-soul story. Giamatti has some memorable moments; if nothing else, the movie will make you ache to see his Uncle Vanya. And the shot of him dolefully running a hairdryer over a fluffy ushanka is inexplicably inspired. But even his baggy charms have worn thin by the end. Without much of a persona to riff on, he can’t match the playfully post-modern tomfoolery of Clive Owen or Kate Winslet in Extras, never mind going the full Malkovich.

Part of the problem is that Barthes, while lucid enough as a storyteller, doesn’t seem to have worked out what she wants her film to say. There are vague parallels between soul-trafficking and the equivalent real-life market in organs or people, but Cold Souls is no allegory. Nor does it ring true as an indictment of our desire to be someone else—the famous, the talented, anyone but ourselves. The obvious get-out would be if the whole soul-removal industry transpired to be a sham reliant on the placebo effect. But in the absence of coherent argument, it may just be safest to interpret the film as a jibe at middle-class artistic types who will fall for anything so long as it’s endorsed by the New Yorker.

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