Drawing from the same cinematic well as Being John Malkovich and the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, writer/director Sophie Barthes crafts her own brilliantly bonkers antithesis to glossy Hollywood with this funny, understated oddity.
Paul Giamatti plays himself, well, a morose sad-sack version of himself, burdened by the anxiety of a heavy soul and struggling with the complexity of a stage play. This being a movie that treads the fantasy/reality tightrope, he happens on an article in The New Yorker that offers the unique service of soul extraction and sees an opportunity to alleviate his woes. It’s only when his chickpea-sized soul ends up on the Russian black market and subsequently into the body of a talentless soap opera actress that he realises being Paul Giamatti mightn’t have been such a bad thing after all.
To praise a Paul Giamatti performance is a pretty redundant exercise, but alas it must be done. Self referential, exposed and extremely funny with only the tiniest flicker from his hangdog face, this is Giamatti taking centre stage and almost reluctantly commanding your attention. His scepticism at the more ludicrous plot devices helps to ground the narrative and prevents Cold Souls from ever becoming quirky or farcical.
There’s not much danger of that happening anyway with the slow-burning, detailed script, and despite the obvious comparisons it still remains highly original. Part drama – witness Giamatti breaking the news of the absence of his soul to his wife (played by an underused Emily Watson) – part comedy – the wonderful reaction to the underwhelming form in which his soul has manifested – and just a little bit sci-fi – the soul extraction scenes are more Blue Peter than anything, but help to aid the endearing, simplistic aesthetic.
Incorporating an intriguing euro-vision, in both personnel and locale, Cold Souls makes the most of Russia’s Siberian landscape and introduces us to at least one truly excellent talent in Dina Korzun. Critically acclaimed in the motherland, here she plays the mysterious “mule” that shepherds souls across the border. She is at once touchingly fragile as well as showing a subtle comedic touch when the surprising double-act forms with Giamatti.
It’s ironic then that the biggest criticism is that the film doesn’t have a soul of its own. The characters aren’t that accessible or likeable, and the cold, sterile way in which they interact means that you could find yourself admiring rather than truly enjoying this excellent little fable.