DIR: Vincent Lannoo • WRI: François Uzan • PRO: Patrick Quinet, Claude Waringo, Serge Zeitoun • DOP: Vincent Van Gelder • ED: Frédérique Broos • MUS: Gast Waltzing • DES: Véronique Sacrez • CAST: Stéphane Guillon, Julie Gayet, Jonathan Zaccaï, Jules Rotenberg
Attempting to situate Paper Souls within a specific generic category has not been an easy task. It may be classified as a supernatural, romantic, fantasy comedy drama and as director Vincent Lannoo certifies, highly influenced by Woody Allen’s postcards from Europe oeuvre. The latter claim should be an optimistic indicator of the Belgian director’s ninth outing, but alas, a charming location and spirited musical score are where the similarities end between Paper Souls and Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
Paul (Stéphane Guillon) was a successful novelist until the death of his wife five years previously. Overburdened with grief and lassitude, he abandons novel writing and earns a living drafting elegies for relatives of the deceased. Emma (Julie Gayet) lost her husband Nathan (Jonathan Zaccaï) over a year ago but her son Adam (Jules Rotenberg) is unable to come to terms with his father’s death. When Emma asks Paul to masquerade as an old friend of Nathan and bond with Adam, he reluctantly agrees. As a taciturn Paul becomes closer to both, he unwittingly recalls Nathan back from the dead. An amnesiac Nathan is unrecognisable to his family and they share no collective memories of one another. However, similarities between Nathan and memories of Paul’s dead wife begin to emerge, placing Paul in a compromising predicament.
A quirky, supernatural French farce by un grand provocateur should be enough to pique critical and audience interest. However, the subversive tone that graced Lannoo’s acclaimed mockumentaries, Strass (2001) and Vampires (2010) or the dark satire and scathing humour found in the impious In the Name of the Son (2012), is glaringly absent in Paper Souls. Rather, a tangled and inaccessible script devoid of parody, satirical impulse or comedic conviction fails to ignite the film on any jocular or fantastical level. Paper Souls suffers from a severe identity crisis. Whilst the film’s style (jerky camera movements, fast cutting, whimsical score) is intended to underpin its farcical elements, it is so at odds with the core romantic plot that in the absence of satire, the convoluted narrative merely creates a maelstrom of chaos.
The lead actors attempt to salvage what they can from such a muddled script but the narrative oscillates from comedy to tragedy, sentimentality to vulgarity and reality to absurdity at such an impenetrable pace, it hampers any possibility of inspiring accomplished performances. Pierre Richard’s turn as the mischievous Victor is evidently intended to reinforce the film’s comedic components but is constrained by such trite dialogue possessing neither irony nor originality, he becomes a more regressive than congenial or sympathetic character. Julie Gayet approaches the role of Emma with apprehension, evidently stumped by the discursive sub-plots and rather sombre romance with Paul. The affair lacks chemistry or sexual tension, resulting in a rather underwhelming liaison, Gayet more at ease in her maternal role than that of sensual lover. Stéphane Guillon and Jonathan Zaccaï attempt to compensate for the film’s shortcomings and whilst there are glimpses of poignancy and nuance from both, they are unable to overcome the narrative’s disjointed limitations. The metaphysical possibilities are cursory and unexplored and further investigation had the potential to anchor and balance the plot’s farcical and romantic elements whilst the phantasmal Zaccaï in particular, is regrettably underused.
In the hands of a more accomplished scriptwriter and an appropriation of style and tone from his earlier films, a subversive Lannoo could have made a refreshing mark on the romantic, comedy fantasy genre. In his attempts to evoke the silvery sentimentality and seductive charm of Midnight in Paris, the film becomes a victim of its director’s overambition, unable to execute its profusion of generic conventions satisfactorily. Instead, Paper Souls results in a highly fragmented, befuddled and contrived film, which just does not gel on any level.
Paper Souls is released 27th February 2015