Movies need to take us aback a little. One, it stars Paul Giamatti as himself. Can we agree that watching Paul playing Paul on the big screen is probably not the biggest thrill? Giamatti is a superior actor but as himself he’s not exactly the life of the party; and that leads to the next problem with “Cold souls”: a lack of vitality, but one that is, somehow, aware that it is lacking. There’s a weight bearing down on this film, and therefore us (thus my traipsing inside my local market late one Tuesday night).
Giamatti is playing in Chekov’s “Vanya” and he complains that he needs better focus. He finds a doctor (David Strathairn) who runs a soul storage company. Does this sound just too easy? The more time goes by, the more “Cold souls” started to reveal itself as sophomoric daydreaming that could only be conjured from film school. It fails to engage because it does not convey one very important thing about moviemaking: the need for a little pixie dust, that magical je-ne-sais-quoi that will make a fantastical story look far-fetched and impossible enough to be entertaining.
Maybe the problem is just Giamatti. There’s something in him that us New Yorkers don’t want to see because it’s that part of us we’re trying to ignore most of the time, a walking existential-crisis-waiting-to-happen. It’s fitting that the movie is about losing your soul, and Barthes makes plenty use of the many humorous implications of this, but everything feels like a cliche. For example, Giamatti’s soul is as big as a chickpea, as it turns out. In fact, it is a chickpea. I would’ve been better convinced if the jar if peered into merely held air. A chickpea–it’s predictable to the point of being a cliche.
In the short film which she directed a couple of years ago, Barthes uses the same type of conceit and attempts to package happiness for sale. That elusive concept is found enclosed in a mysterious box, at a Russian-owned gift-shop in Brooklyn. Being from France, I understand Barthe’s strange predilection for conceptualizing impossible concepts like happiness and the soul. Because it is so very French. But it does not translate well on the big screen. In fact, Barthes gets confused in “Cold souls” and blurs the line between soul and memory—it’s a cop out. Even the less intelligently gifted will understand the difference between soul and memory. When Giamatti ends up with someone else’s soul, he suddenly starts having daydreams of that person’s difficult childhood.
This is the moment in “Cold Souls” when I knew that Sophie Barthes had ‘rate son coup’ as the French say. She missed her mark. At least, in “Happiness” there was that happy, if awkward moment when the factory worker notices her supervisor’s red high-heels and buys the very same pair. There was the little mystery, the pixie dust that made it all more fun, more.. better. There are no red high-heels in Cold Souls. Only Paul Giamatti walking in and out of rooms and unloading his neuroses onto unsuspecting bystanders (his wife, the physician, etc.) I wanted to think that in theory the concept behind Cold Souls was a good one, but I wouldn’t even dare. There is a reason why few directors have attempted this, and that’s because such existentialist overtures look far better on paper. Write a poem about it! It will give the world more pleasure.
When Wim Wenders wanted to peer into the human soul, he used angels that were imperfect. You could hear people’s thoughts riding the subway home. Then one of the angels wanted to become human. The soul was a tangible thing then, it was brilliant. Unlike with films made in France, in America people are not defined by their neuroses—they prevail over them. And when the opposite happens, unless you can stuff a pair of red heels somewhere in there, it becomes too much of a drag.