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Cold Souls

USA 2008
Directed by
Sophie Barthes
101 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Cold Souls

Just as Paul Giamatti is not as well-known as John Malkovich so Cold Souls is not as well known as Being John Malkovich (1999) despite being as good, if not better, at handling thematically-related subject matter. Both films have fun with their absurd premises, but arguably writer-director Sophie Barthes does more with hers than did writer Charlie Kauffman and director Spike Jonze with theirs, the latter offering a fifteen minute celebrity joy ride as opposed to the ontological re-configuration of “soul extraction” explored in Cold Souls. Whilst the handling of the latter probably wouldn’t withstand close philosophic scrutiny the film does give plenty of occasions for mirth.

Paul Giamatti plays himself struggling with the role of Uncle Vanya in a New York stage production of Chekov’s play. He reads a New Yorker article about a company extracting and freezing souls in crisis and hesitantly decides to undergo the procedure until the role is completed.  But he finds that being “soul-less” renders him not only ridiculous in the role but unable to feel anything at all including for his wife (Emily Watson). He borrows the soul of a Russian poet but this leaves him even more strung out so he decides to revert to his own soul. But it has been stolen and taken to St Petersburg and implanted in a soap opera actress who wants to improve her acting chops.

Barthes’ screenplay might have been based on a short story by Dostoevesky so delicious is it in its existential horror which is delivered completely straight-faced.  Giamatti, who came to fame playing the real life curmudgeonly underground cartoonist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor (2003), is perfect in the lead, exasperated and quietly desperate, lost in a maze of his own making and trying to get back the life he had once thought so insupportable.  There is a whisper of a sub-plot involving his having the soul of a troubled Russian woman that should have received more attention and the very notion of the soul as a detachable and portable object may not work philosophically or psychologically but nevertheless Cold Souls, which after all, is only a movie, has a coolly humorous appeal. 




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