Cold Souls is cold and soulless
10. 7. 2009 / Ema Čulík
A wise woman once said, "as time goes on, you come to seek out the authentic." The rubbish that people spout, falsity, fakeness- it's just not interesting. You start to look for Truth, with a capital 'T', in things.. because, after all, the rest is really just a waste of time.
However, in terms of art, including film, that doesn't mean that you necessarily have to limit yourself to Realism. In my opinion, because they draw attention to their forms and draw the everyday out of context and satirise it, post-modernism and fantasy can be even more realistic than 'Realism', where the viewer is required to suspend his disbelief and enter into the film often with eyes wide shut.
A Czech version of this article is HERE
And so I was really looking forward to this film Cold Souls (2008) by Sophie Barthes, the American entry to the Main Competition here at KVIFF. It's about a famous American actor, Paul Giamatti, playing himself, who is having trouble with the role of Uncle Vanya on the New York stage, and so he decides to have his soul removed and stored in the deep freeze. I expected something playful, philosophical, self-mocking, literary, a little grotesque, and in the end, very human. I thought that, by removing the soul from the body, Barthes would examine it a little, or at least be enchanted by it, show its magic, and how it glitters against the dark silly modern world. And also, I was looking forward to seeing Paul Giamatti in action, as he has always shined in his previous work. (Most notably, Sideways (2004), though he has appeared in about fifty films over the last twenty years..)
None of my expectations were met. First of all, in terms of examination of the soul, this film was a total cop out. When Giamatti asks the director of the Soul Storage clinic, Dr. Flintstein, about the nature of the soul, he says, "Well, we don't know about that." Great. All they show of the souls is the following: firstly, the odd shapes and sizes that they come in (Giamatti's soul comes in the form of a chickpea); and secondly, some hazy shots of people walking down twilight corridors and childhood memories. Both of these are very superficial representations of what is supposed to be the most beautiful and wonderful part of humanity. Barthes has been very ambitious in taking on such an incredibly large and beautiful idea with her first film. Her story's message is that the soul is the most wonderful thing we have and we should appreciate it. And yet her representation of this amazing thing is totally staid and ... soulless!
The views of 'inside the soul' are so familiar -- dreamy sequences of dark corridors and bright windows have appeared in so many films. She just used a stereotype. And not only here. It transpires that the Soul Storage clinic is trading in souls with.... the Russians! Of course. Who are Americans afraid of? Where, in all the world, would they most fear their soul being lost? Which country is mysterious and illegal? Which country is represented in the West in stereotypes alone? Russia. I'm so bored of Russians being the bad guys. Why not make it Germans? Or perhaps Arabs? Then, at least, it would be up to date..
I understand that Barthes read Gogol's Dead Souls and decided to use it to make her own 'unconventional', 'cooky' story. And since it's Gogol, it should be in Russia, right? But she didn't refer to or react to or hint at the meaning of the first text at all. She added too much false pathos. While Gogol mocks his jaded society, Barthes over-romanticises it. She could have made a wonderful play on words about modern people being so numb that their souls are dead, and need to be brought back to life. She just made a banal story about a silly spoiled man getting involved in some shady deals, who gets out unscathed at the end.
The story is devoid of any real questions or meditations. And the acting is similarly empty. But not because of the cast, who did their best. In particular, the talented Emily Watson, who always gives a delicate and astute performance. You can see her trying to give the character more than one side. But the role that was given her was completely flat and a lesser artist would have made it completely non-existent. Poor Paul Giamatti. You could see him writhing like he had ants in his pants as he loses his soul, gains another one, flies to Russia and back. He tuts and sighs, and shows that all of this is a great inconvenience for him... But he has lost his soul. We see no change whatsoever in his behaviour. Barthes didn't think to show how the loss of your soul would affect a person. His only problem is that he becomes bluntly honest and can't have sex. And he acts Uncle Vanya as if he were waiting at a bus stop. But these, too, are purely superficial signs. Surely the loss of one's soul would make a complete change in someone. His face should have become completely different. He has to verbally describe his discomfort to Dr Flintstein, as there is no indication of it from the way he behaves! Perhaps this could be read as a comment on the empty nature of the modern man -- but then, when everyone tells him how beautiful his soul is, when he hires the soul of a Russian poet (please! Has Barthes actually read any Russian poetry? They're not all Lermontov, you know..), who is supposed to have a 'deep' soul -- there is still no change. It's utterly inconsistent and utterly empty.
And as for the Russians, they too are cardboard cut-outs. Nina, the 'mule' who carries souls from Petersburg to New York, is the 'good guy'. She opens her eyes really widely and blinks like a deer to show that she is innocent despite being Russian. Because she has carried so many souls too and fro, she is apparently full of the 'residue' left by a soul. And this has no effect on her behaviour whatsoever. It's like having a soul, or not, or many, is like having bacteria on your teeth.
Everything about the direction is extremely childish. The characters and the story are flat and empty, based on stock ideas and utterly schematic. This film could only ever be a commercial success for those who don't mind watching clichés, as nothing about it rings true. And it's a shame, because the initial concept could have been very fruitful and interesting. If only they had put some thought into it.
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