This 2009 existential dark comedy thriller stars Paul Giamatti and is written and directed by first time feature length film director Sophia Barthes. Here Giamatti plays a version of himself, an actor preparing to star in Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” on Broadway, wracked with anxiety during the rehearsals and finding his life and existence slowly becoming emptier. Reading an article in the New Yorker, he decides to have his soul stored and frozen in a warehouse since the “soul storage” company promises “people who store their soul become more relaxed.” Turns out Giamatti’s soul looks like a chickpea and he’s none too happy about it. However, things take a turn for the worst when Russian soul smugglers steal his soul to have it be put into the vacuous wife of a Russian mobster. It’s a race against time, as a brilliant actor see’s his beautiful soul used on a Russian soap opera and must travel to Russia to find it before it shrinks to something even smaller than a chickpea.
This movie is really hard to talk about without giving anything away, because it’s just so odd, but it’s really about the journey rather than the ending. We saw this film at the New Directors/New Films 2009 film series run by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art in NY. It was a completely sold out showing and was a movie I was really interested in seeing since it played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. In fact a few movies during this New Directors film festival just had their premieres at Sundance so it was nice to get a fairly early look at some of these films.
I love the whole concept of the film, how souls are commodities, how souls are bought, traded and assigned numerical values and how there’s this underground business in soul smuggling, as people, similar to cocaine mules, use their own body to smuggle in illegal Russian souls. And how there’s the whole market for people who want to feel what it’s like to have Russian souls, but there’s no market outside of American for American souls because “who wants that crap?” I also really like the fact that people can try on souls, meaning one can store their soul and take on another soul. Some use this to change the way the act, such as at one point Paul Giamatti tries on the soul of a Russian poet and he becomes brilliantly self-reflective and brooding. I also like how souls are vessels for our memories and when you try on a person’s soul, you also take on some of their memories, their tragedies. I really like how the filmmakers played around with the whole great debate on if souls are real, and what are the nature of souls. It has nothing to do about religion but is more a state of being. I also like how when someone stores their soul and are essentially “soulless” there’s basically no difference with how they act, which is just a fascinating thought.
The cinematography is also exceptionally amazing. 2/3’s of the film is set in America with the last 1/3 set in Russia and it all looks beautiful. Cold Souls is filled with many quiet moments, of Paul Giammati just walking around, or reading a book, or walking by the beach. There’s all this quiet that if the cinematography wasn’t well done it would be a real chore to watch. But it all works because the music, the setting, the way everything is shot is just on key. There are just these moments where I felt like I was looking at artistic photography because everything looks amazing.
I’m fascinated with how the whole idea of this movie came to fruition. After the movie, the director of the film, Sophia Barthes was on hand along with the cinematographer, and casting director. Sophia talked about how the idea came to her in a dream. Basically in her dream she was standing on line as a man sat at a table evaluating the worth of people’s souls. Each person on line carried a small box which contained the extent of their soul. She noticed Woody Allen was also on line and when he opened his box, there was a chickpea inside. Woody Allen started to get hysterical screaming, “I’ve made over 40 films and a chickpea is the size of my soul? That’s ridiculous.” And then standing on line Sophia wondered, “if Woody’s soul is the size of a chickpea I don’t want to see mine.” And then right when the box she was carrying was being opened she awoke, never getting to see what her soul looked like. And that was the genesis of Cold Souls. I was fascinated by the whole premise of her dream. I can’t remember most of my dreams and the one’s I do consist of me being chased in a parking lot late at night by a killer. And every time he catches up to me I wake up. So my dreams suck, but yeah evidently Sophia writes all her dreams down and she has actually productive dreams.
Sophia then went on to talk about how she wanted to write the main character to be Woody Allen, but then thought, “he wouldn’t want to star in a first time directors film and if he did he would probably want to direct it, so she then turned on the tv and watched American Splendor and fell in love with Paul Giamatti’s persona and wrote the film based around how Paul Giamatti acts in all his films. Then she sent it in to a Cape Code screenwriting contest, won and was flown out to attend the award show. And at the award show, Paul Giamatti was there to present director Alexander Payne an award for Sideways (which goes to show you how long Cold Souls has been in production), and Sophia showed Giamatti the script, he read it and loved it and agreed to star in the film. I’m amazed by her balls because what would have happened if he said no? She would have to rewrite the entire script, and I can’t see anyone else besides John Malkovich starring in this film.
Talking about John Malkovich, it’s easy to compare Cold Souls to the Charlie Kaufman’s scripted Being John Malkovich, which starred the actor himself as a neurotic actor whose head/mind people could enter through a small doorway in a random office closet. Now that film is surreal, odd and absolutely brilliant. So yeah, it’s easy to compare both films but I think that’s a detriment to Cold Souls. Cold Souls is not a copy of a Kaufman film, but is one rather inspired by the likes of Carl Jung, Woody Allen, Descartes “Passions of the Souls” and the Spanish surrealist filmmaker, Luis Bunuel who along with Salvador Dali created the famous surrealist film, Un chien andalou, which actually played on rotation at the MoMa for a while on a large wall. Man that was nice. Cold Souls is very surreal, a dream like base of storytelling, which surprisingly, director and writer Sophia Barnes makes comprehensible. It would be easy to think Cold Souls would fall in the realm of trite, existential ass kissing, but give Sophia credit; it’s entertaining, thought provoking yet intelligible enough to appear simple. It’s a great tight wire act between darkness and absurdity and is a film about how we all just need to feel connected, to be part of something. It speaks to the general nature of people, how we all just live not suffer, but that’s not enough because everyone also needs to be happy. If we’re not happy than we’re not living, soulless.
The soundtrack is also amazing. I like how the filmmakers chose to use French songs while the characters were in Russia. It adds a feeling of dislocation, a feeling of emptiness and confusion, just subtle hints to add to the agitation of the characters.
I really think this is a fantastic film, akin to any Charlie Kaufman film and is one of my favorites to come out this year. It’s odd, different and bold with no easy answers. We follow Giamatti as he learns to understand his soul and, what speaks so well about this film, is that we also learn a little bit about our own. So I give this a “bring your lunch from home because you do not want to miss this one” rating. During the Q&A the producer said that Cold Souls will be released in July by Samuel Goldwyn, so check it out then. I’ll remind our listeners when it gets its limited release. The one hurdle will be how the marketing department will advertise this film. They’ll have to focus on the playful absurdity of it all and I hope it works because more people should see this film.