Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cold Souls (2009)

One Man's Chickpea Is Another Man's Relic

- In an amusing and subtle stroke of genius, Paul Giamatti plays "himself" in Cold Souls (2009). The many film critics who claim that all Giamatti does is play himself in any film get a rude awakening to their absurd claim when they see him clearly not playing himself as he is playing himself in Cold Souls, the first feature film from writer/director Sophie Barthes.

Paul has a problem: while working on the play "Uncle Vanya," he has absorbed too much of the character into his daily life and feels weighed down, depressed, and unable to do his work on stage. His agent gives him a bizarre solution: soul extraction. That's right: if you are feeling too low to bear it one more day, just go to Dr. Flintstein (played by David Strathairn) and he will take your soul away. Strathairn is the film's salesman - trying to sell the film's science fiction element of soul extraction and storage - and his sales pitch is a hit. Flintstein convinces the desperate Paul to extract his soul to unburden him - and it works, sort of.... The weight is gone, the burden is gone, and the pain is gone; however, as Dr. Flintstein says, "soullessness has its own peculiarities."

Heaped on top of his frustrated amazement that his soul looks like a chickpea, Paul is not himself any longer: he cannot feel, he cannot perform, and he cannot love his wife - all of which distresses him. Paul eventually gets fed up with not being himself, but when he returns to Flintstein to have his soul put back in his body, he finds it missing - lost somewhere in the ever-popular Russian black market for American souls. Traveling with Russian soul-trafficker Nina (Dina Korzun) and running a borrowed soul of a Russian poet, Paul goes in search of his soul before it is forever lost.

Cold Souls is similar to writer/director Sophie Barthes previous short film Happiness (2006), where a woman buys happiness in a box; the ideas of identity, persevering through life's weight, and playing God are told through the film in a very surreal dark comedy way. The film's aesthetics are representative of a cold and soulless state with its dim lighting and mellow coloring (where no color clearly exposes itself) while also letting the quirky side of the film come through at the same time.

The film's poignancy is complimented very well by the extremely effective comedy that can be credited both to the flat-out funny sets of dialogue and Paul Giamatti's performance. The character is obviously not simply a mirror version of Giamatti. How can Giamatti be playing himself in the film in the first place? He is playing himself with no soul and then a different soul - that's not "playing oneself," one has to act and get into a role that does in fact differ from his or her own person. Giamatti arrives at a high level of acting in the film perfectly handling the comedic and vulnerable sides to the character (even giving us something extra with his "Vanya").

The soul is important to us human beings; whether one believes that humans have a soul or not, people view things that "have soul" as desirable and substantial while things that are "soulless" are viewed as undesirable and are void of life and feeling. With quirk and cold, Cold Souls takes a look at how the soul defines us as individual human beings and how important it is to not let that go. Cold Souls might look and feel cold and dreary but is very much alive thanks to the vision of Sophie Barthes and the vibrant performance from Paul Giamatti.

CBC Rating: 8/10

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