Fox // 2009 // 101 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // March 22nd, 2010
Paul Giamatti has lost his soul, and he wants it back.
Sophie Barthes' directorial feature debut Cold Souls is a wonderful little film about a guy who goes nuts when he decides to live without his soul for a while. It's an innovative indie film that cares about its characters and story, and it's now out on DVD for your viewing pleasure. This truly one of those films you shouldn't miss at any cost.
In the film, Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, an American actor whose morale hits rock bottom during the rehearsals for Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." Giamatti's soul is starting to suffer under the heavy weight of the material and his deep commitment to play his character as authentic as possible, and if he doesn't do anything about it, he fears he'll see his entire existence crumble to pieces. That's when he hears about Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), a scientist who specializes in the extraction of human souls. Though reluctant at first, Giamatti agrees to undergo the procedure, hoping that temporarily removing the soul from his body will give him the opportunity to get through "Uncle Vanya" without having a mental breakdown.
By analyzing the facts of this case, you can already tell that Barthes' Cold Souls is certainly not your ordinary indie flick. What makes this sci-fi comedy so extraordinary is the originality of its concept, which offers a dark, yet often comic look at how attached humans are to their souls, no matter what inner tragedy they are experiencing. Creating a film about an actor who has his soul taken out of his body to be able to play a role more lightly is simply an ingenious idea, and Barthes successfully turns her innovative concept into an amusing existentialist comedy boasting both a compelling plot and fantastic acting performances.
Cold Souls has a lot of messages to convey to its viewers, and some are more obvious than others. The great thing about this movie is that it boasts enough clever material for audiences to come up with their own interpretations, a quality I always consider to be a n advantage. Essentially, the film examines what happens to humans if they lost their soul. In the case of Giamatti, extracting his soul definitely shakes things up in his life. Even though he instantly acquires new energy and loses the burden he experiences during rehearsals, he quickly realizes that his performance in "Uncle Vanya" is actually getting worse.
From there, it all goes downhill, and when Giamatti returns to Flintstein to reclaim his soul, he's in for the shock of his life: it has disappeared. With Giamatti outraged and clueless about what the heck he is experiencing, Flintstein offers him a different soul of his choice for the time being, and, believe it or not, Giamatti decides to go with it by picking that of a Russian poet. In an attempt to find his own soul, the troubled actor soon finds himself on the way to Russia, where souls from all over the world are appearing and disappearing in a big black market operation.
I know this sounds like a lot to take in, but Barthes' script keeps everything structured properly without losing focus. Cold Souls is a fascinating portrait of a man who realizes he can't live without the darker areas of his life, and it does a fine job depicting the inability of us humans to really see and fully understand the mysteries of our emotional nature. The movie starts out a little slow in its attempt to properly establish the characters, but once Giamatti undergoes the soul extraction procedure, things start to speed up dramatically. From here, it becomes very easy to immerse yourself into the film's intriguing world.
Cold Souls works so beautifully because it's loaded with surprises. You never know where it is heading, and essentially, anything could happen at any given moment. That's really what captured my full attention throughout, and that's also the film's strongest capability. Giamatti is obviously the main reason this movie works so well on so many levels. He takes the interesting character Barthes has created and gives him the necessary energy to remain appealing throughout. Additionally, I always find it fascinating to watch Giamatti. He's one of those actors you simply can't take your eyes off, and, in this film particularly, he basically plays three different roles. His performance shifts depending on the soul in his body, and it's a pleasure to watch.
A quick note about the rest of the main cast. I'm a huge fan of Strathairn's work. Even though his role is limited in this flick, he masters his scenes without a problem. Dina Korzun, who plays a mysterious Russian who illegally transports souls between countries, turns in a powerful performance as well. She's at her best when onscreen with Giamatti. Emily Watson is also on board, but her potential is pretty much wasted, which is a shame. Her role is simply too short for her to shine here, and I really wish Barthes would have done a bit more with her character.
The DVD offers viewers a solid 1.78:1 widescreen presentation. Cold Souls boasts a strong cinematography, and the image quality does it justice, because the film looks sharp and clean. The audio transfer works great as well, so no complaints in the technical department. The bonus material isn't as intriguing though. The disc includes a bunch of decent deleted scenes, but other than that, the only thing you'll find on here is a three-minute featurette about the design of the soul extractor. It's a decent piece, but I would have enjoyed more of these. An audio commentary would have been great as well.
I said the story and plot of Cold Souls are very imaginative, and I stand by that. However, the only thing Barthes could've improved on is the film's ending. It's a tad too conventional for my taste, and she could have developed it in a different way. It's by no means a disappointment, but it's weaker than most of the rest of the film.
Cold Souls is unlike Giamatti's other recent films. It's not a film for a large audience, and it's not a fast-paced comedy. Its humor is subtle, and Barthes allows a lot of time for her scenes to establish meaning. This is one I can only recommend. Do you and your soul a favor, and make sure you don't miss this one.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes