Thursday evening, I braved the freeways and the helicopters circling the late Michael Jackson at UCLA Medical Center to get to the Mann Center in Westwood for the LA Film Fest Screening of Cold Souls.
Writer/director Sophie Barthes was in attendance, as well as star Paul Giamatti and supporting actress Katheryn Winnick. They had a talkback later, which I took notes on. But first, about the film…
If Charlie Kaufman hadn’t written Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Cold Souls would seem wildly imaginative. As it is, the concept — Paul Giamatti, playing himself, has his soul removed and, eventually, replaced with the soul of a Russian factory worker, then tries to get the original soul back, only to find it has been stolen by a Russian soap actress — is sadly derivative. Not that I think writer/director Barthes meant to be derivative. As she said, the concept and images came directly from dreams that she had.
Nonetheless, when you have an actor playing himself with wry self-deprecation, comparisons to Being John Malkovich are inevitable. And the dreamlike imagery in Cold Souls could have been straight out of Eternal Sunshine, as well as the present-day sci-fi premise. In the comparison, the Kaufman-penned movies win.
That said, Giamatti is excellent as always and watching him act the part of Uncle Vanya under the influence of different souls is a great pleasure. The plot is interesting, with a side story about a trafficker of souls from Russia who takes a shine to Giamatti after transporting his soul. It makes some odd leaps — all of a sudden they stop trying to get Giamatti’s soul back and seek to return the Russian factory worker’s soul — but it doesn’t make itself particularly difficult to follow as indie movies often do. The photography, particularly the sequences shot on location in St. Petersburg, is darkly beautiful.
Supporting performances are also fine, other than Emily Watson, whose character isn’t written with any chance for her do anything of interest. Katheryn Winnick, as the Russian actress Sveta, I thought was just fine, although my Russophile friend said her fake accent stood out like a sore thumb next to all the real Russian actors, including the actor playing her shady mob-boss husband, who was wonderfully menacing. (Giamatti praised him in the talkback, calling him Dimitri and saying he is like the Martha Stewart of Russia. He speaks no English and had to learn the lines phonetically. I could find no Dimitri on the imdb page as of writing — so I’m not sure of the full name.)
After the movie, Barthes told the story of the dream that inspired the movie, where she was in a clinic with a bunch of other New Yorkers who were getting their souls removed. Woody Allen happened to be there, and he got very neurotic when he found out his soul was small and looked like a chickpea.
Paul Giamatti said he was attracted to playing Russian factory worker, not himself. There was also the challenge of playing Uncle Vanya both horribly and very well. (The scene where he plays Vanya by making every wrong actor choice is the highlight of the film). He thought of the soul as a superego. Barthes had a hard time directing him in the bad-acting scene because she felt he was playing William Shatner. Giamatti stressed that he loves Bill Shatner and was not doing an intentional impression.
Winnick said she liked working with Giamatti and taking on his soul. (Not that she ever gets an opportunity show off as an actor in the same way Giamatti does.)
Barthes said she wanted to make a science fiction movie that takes place in the present day, inspired especially by Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville. The concept of soul removal as a salve for psychic distress is Prozak taken to next step.
They had no problems shooting in Russia after bearing horror stories of bribes. Winnick has Ukrainian background but had never been to Russia before. She was humbled by poverty. Russian actors are really serious. According to Giamatti, every one of them bills themself as ‘greatest Russian actor’.
Barthes realized the tale of Princess and the Pea was a similarity while editing.
Q: What kind of soul do you have? Giamatti says he doesn’t have a soul. Barthes: I’m in the process of selling mine to Hollywood.
How to make soulful visuals? Paintings and photography inspired Barthes. Francis Bacon. Bill Hansen. A new York woman who took photos in Russia whose name I didn’t catch. She has kept a dream journal since she was young. The image of a man picking something out of kid’s head was from a dream she had at age 15.
If she knew what happened to the soul, Barthes said, she would be God.