Aching Souls for Sale or Exchange

in 44th Karlovy Vary Film Festival

by Jan Foll

In this year’s Official Competition Selection at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival there appeared several very interesting films on the topic of blending theater or film with the civil lives of the protagonists. One of the most striking ones was an absurdity called “Cold Souls” (2008) shot by the thirty-four-year old director Sophie Barthes, it being her film debut. The main hero is a New York actor who is rehearsing the main part in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”. The plot is set in a fictitious company which specializes in extracting human souls and freeing people from their gloom. The frustrated artist undergoes this “operation” but his soul gets lost and is nowhere to be found. It was smuggled to Saint Petersburg.

Originally the director wanted to cast Woody Allen for the main role in this grotesque with serious subplots but in the end the hero is acted out by Paul Giamatti. He impersonated the archetype of hypersensitive intellectuals who seemingly don’t lack anything. However they are not balanced or happy. His self-parody of disordered artists is calmer and more melancholic than we are used to from Allen’s neurotics for a nostalgic sci-fi comedy which was inspired by the director’s dream, yet this is more suitable.

“Cold Souls” is a serene reflection on the birth of theatre; scenes from the rehearsals where the main hero tries to interpret Chekhov’s text appear again and again. At first he doesn’t know what to do with the character because he is stressed, then he acts out this piece of classical drama as if it was a variety show (because meanwhile he has lost his soul and barriers). Finally when we see the rehearsal for the third time he acts out the role according to the director’s expectations. Therefore, are we being given “instructions” on how to do serious art work or its caricature? Sophie Barthes skillfully balances between the two.

The fictitious procedure when the main hero is having the cause of his troubles operated can be read as a caricature of psychotherapeutic séances or cloning experiments. Here the story gets the proportions of a satire on sophisticated society which is trapped in technological development and spiritual helplessness. The comedy about soul extractions classifies as a thriller once the business with their transplantations starts rolling. Giamatti’s opponent and later helper is a Russian courier (Dina Korzun) who transports this lucrative “contraband” inside her body.

As a spectator from a former totalistic country who doesn’t have any ideals about contemporary Russia I understood “Cold Souls” as a warning political allegory as well. It speaks about the contrast of American democracy (with its’ confidence, open heartedness and simplicity!) and Russian usurpation. The boss of the Russian gang has the actor’s soul stolen for his wife – a typical rich “Barbie” type who is having a career in a stupid sit-com. The egoistic mafia guys personify the danger which Oriental businessmen and autocrats threaten the West with.

The picture of today’s Russia that the director Sophie Barthes and her partner, the cameraman Andrij Parekhem, give us is a picture of a country full of enormous contrasts. However the suggested contrast of the civilized “West” and the backward “East” (expressed also in the scenes of gloomy Saint Petersburg and its desolate interiors) isn’t definite. The hero is internally enhanced by the implanted soul of a Russian poet and the mafia courier helps him even though it means that she will lose her lucrative job. The archives in the storage rooms in Manhattan are finally confiscated by American agents…

“Cold Souls”, which remind us of absurdities by Philip Kaufman, is ushered in by a quotation from the founding father of modern rationalism René Descartes. This multilayered story which is enriched by performances of David Strathairn (playing the character of tactful doctor Flintstein) and Emily Watson (in the role of the shocked hero’s wife) controverts in its philosophical level with blind materialism. It smiles upon looking at the soul as something material which can be fixed like a broken leg. It is a satire on doubtable experiments and hard-fisted business which devastate human nature. It tells the story of the permanent controversy between chastity and roguery.

Edited by Steven Yates