29 March 2009 | nonsequitur247
Dark yet delightful.
I saw this film today as part of FSLC and MoMA's New Directors / New Films Festival. The screening was followed by a Q&A with writer/director Sophie Barthes, who openly admitted to being annoyed by comparisons between her film and Charlie Kaufman's works. Though not entirely similar, the surrealist feel of 'Souls' is bound to draw those comparisons, and even if Barthes is sick of hearing it, I have to say, I imagine that if Kaufman and Anton Chekhov decided they should write a movie together and Michel Gondry agreed to direct Paul Giamatti in it, this would be the result.
The film focuses on Giamatti, who plays a version of himself preparing to star in Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya' on Broadway. He finds himself tormented by the Russian material, even though it's one of Chekhov's "lighter" plays. In search of relief, he undergoes a procedure in what looks like a modded MRI machine at the hand of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) which removes his chickpea-like soul from his body and freezes it temporarily until he is ready to possess it again. The B story follows a willowy Russian named Nina (Dina Korzun) who transports anonymously donated Russian souls to America using her own body as the vessel. At one point, she takes Giamatti's soul to Russia, where her boss's soap-actress wife is in need of talent and inspiration, and of course, trouble ensues.
Despite the heavy subject matter, an abundance of absurdity and wit make 'Cold Souls' amusing as well as thought-provoking. Though the tone is dark, it is not suffocatingly so--Barthes pokes fun at existential torment while seriously grappling with it at the same time. Giamatti is great as the "actor much like himself" and Strathairn and Korzun provide excellent support. The camera drifts in and out of focus in a beautiful manner throughout the film, and the French music suits the mood. The writing is solid, though the pacing is a little uneven--the film begins and wraps up a little too quickly--and the three years of hard work that Barthes poured into this clearly show.
Barthes said that she based the screenplay on a dream she had, and that while she admires Kaufman, she was more heavily influenced by Woody Allen and French Surrealists like Luis Buneal. She has infused this dark Surrealism with whimsy and absurdism to create something entirely her own, and the result prompts both pleasure and discomfort. 'Cold Souls' is definitely worth watching--I hope it's distributed as widely as it deserves to be--and Barthes is definitely a writer and director I'd watch in the future.