The similarities Cold Souls bears with the works of Charlie Kaufman are undeniable. First time writer-director Sophie Barthes uses many of the recurring ‘Kaufmanesque’ motifs: the middle-aged artist suffering from a crisis of confidence, meta magic realism, offbeat humour, actors playing themselves (or actors playing a representation of someone in the ‘real’ world), and commentary on the crass consumerism of modern life through the sale/commercialisation of intangible elements of the human essence.
So much so, in fact, that Barthes has run the risk being labelled a derivative rip-off merchant. But there is a difference between wholesale pilfering and using other works as inspiration. And, to Barthes’ credit, there are enough of her own stylistic marks on display – a bleached palate of washed-out soft focuses, a downbeat pace and a morose dialogue patter that swerves away from Kaufman’s trademark zaniness – to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Starring the great Paul Giamatti as a fictionalised version of a less-great Paul Giamatti currently struggling to ‘find’ his role in a Broadway production of Russian playwright, Anton Checkov’s Uncle Vanya, which, in itself, is a clever reference to the themes of Cold Souls. Giamatti is beset by anxiety and decides to remove his soul after coming across an advert for Cold Souls Storage, in a hope to better connect to his character.
The set up here is where the film is at its best. David Strathairn gets a scene-stealing role as Dr. Flintstein, an enthusiastic but bumbling quack who seems unsure about the magnitude of the service he’s selling.
“Now, your soul will be stored here, or if you’d rather avoid sales tax it can be shipped to our New Jersey warehouse,” he tells Giamatti. “God, no. I don’t want my soul shipped to New Jersey,” comes the deadpan response. And the running gag of Giamatti’s soul being a chickpea is great.
Unsurprisingly, after the op, which leaves Giamatti “hollow, lighter and bored…but great” (all the usual symptoms), his acting talent deserts him. So he tries a soul transplant, choosing a Russian poet model, naturally. The production of Uncle Vanya is a great success, but Giamatti’s wife (the much underused Emily Watson) soon notices his increasingly erratic behaviour and he decides to get his original soul re-implanted.
Running parallel to this is the story of Nina (Dina Korzun), a Russian mule trafficking blackmarket souls. Her boss’ trophy wife is a soap opera actress and wants the soul of Al Pacino to boost her acting career. But Giamatti’s is the best Nina can find. This leads Giamatti to travel to St. Petersburg to reclaim his stolen soul.
If you’ve been following all that, then the similarities between this and Kaufman’s existentialist shtick shouldn’t be too hard to spot, with Cold Souls cribbing various pieces of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York. To her credit, Barthes has fearlessly nailed her colours to the mast, and if you’re going to pay homage to someone, then Charlie Kaufman is a pretty good choice.
However, Barthes doesn’t quite have the artistic nuances as a writer to keep it all together. Her direction is excellent throughout, gleaning a perfect performance from Giamatti, who bravely allows himself to be parodied as a self-pitying prima donna. And visually the film is very beautiful, with the composition of a sand blown beach at sunset particularly glorious. But the plot wanes, losing drive and gusto in the middle before fading away to nothing at the end.
Cold Souls starts out excellently. A high concept, metaphysical sci-fi tragicomedy set in contemporary New York that asks an intriguing question: what would happen if you sold your soul? With Giamatti as Faust and corporate America as the Devil. But instead of exploring this, it tries so hard to emulate the immense narrative labyrinths of Charlie Kaufman that it becomes increasingly diluted.
A very interesting film, nonetheless, and well worth a watch if you’re a fan of Jonze, Gondry and, of course, Kaufman.
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Cold Souls will be released on March 15 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.