For as long as he has philosophised, man has wondered at the nature of the soul: what is it? what does it do? does it even exist? According to writer-director Sophie Bathes, the soul does indeed exist and what’s more you can have yours extracted, stored or even swapped. At least, that is the jumping off point of Barthes’ Cold Souls, a wry take on the nature of one’s soul specifically as it relates to an artist.
The artist in question is actor Paul Giamatti, who is played by the actor Paul Giamatti, one of the film’s many Kaufman-esque elements. That’s Charlie Kaufman, writer of being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two films which Cold Souls may draw easy comparison with. Giamatti is in rehearsals for a theatre production of Uncle Vanya and is finding his character elusive. His agent suggests he read an article in The New Yorker which leads Paul to a medical facility where they have developed the technology to extract souls, keeping them in storage until the owners wish to have them returned.
One of the comic highlights of the film is Giamatti’s incredulity on finding that his soul is only the size of a chickpea. Apparently they can come in all sizes and colours though most, reveals soul extractor Dr Flintstein (a droll David Strathairn), are grey. Free of his soul, Paul is unburdened for a few days before he starts to suffer separation anxiety. But upon his return to the clinic, he finds that his soul has been stolen.
This links to another plotline involving “mules”, people, mostly women, who courier souls between Russia and the US. Giamatti’s soul has been taken by mule Nina (Dina Korzun) whose Russian employer’s girlfriend, a struggling soapie actress, wants the soul of an American actor – Pacino or Depp will do. That she gets Giamatti’s is one joke; that she doesn’t know he is is another.
Of course, audiences will know Paul Giamatti as a fine character actor who has built up a strong body of work playing mostly twitchy, sometimes disagreeable but never dull misanthropes. He scored an Oscar nomination in 2005 for perhaps his straightest role, in Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, but was criminally ignored the previous year for his performance in Sideways which I’d say was better than any of that year’s other nominees, including Jamie Foxx’s winning portrayal of Ray Charles.
No matter. Giamatti is a good sport here, mocking his own screen persona and the temperamental nature of actors, generally. Emily Watson as his wife, Claire, is sadly underused although her bemused expression, when her husband reveals exactly what it is that has been troubling him, is priceless.
Sophie Barthes may not have the confidence to cut loose with the crazy like Charlie Kaufman, with the film’s second half less amusing and more sombre (as one might expect when contemplating the loss of one's soul) as the action moves from New York to Russia. But as with Kaufman, Cold Souls is comedy with smarts, not afraid to massage the audience’s mind whist tickling its funny bone. Besides, laughter is good for the soul.