Paper Souls (Les âmes de papier)

France (2013) Dir. Vincent Lannoo

The pen, they say, is mightier than the sword but could it also be mightier than science and the nature of life itself? This quirky light drama / rom-com from Belgian director Vincent Lannoo ponders this peculiar idea on our behalf.

Successful novelist Paul (Stéphane Guillon) has been unable to write anything since the death of his wife so he ekes out a living writing eulogies for funerals. Paul is approached by Emma (Julie Gayet), a young widow who wants him to write an in depth eulogy for her late war photographer husband, in the hope it will settle her eight year-old son Adam (Jules Rotenberg) who has blocked out all memories of his father.

Paul reluctantly takes on the job but only because he is attracted to Emma and is goaded by his eccentric neighbour Victor (Pierre Richard). Over time Paul, Emma and Adam form a comfortable bond which both Emma and Paul are unsure how to continue until one night, Paul receives a surprise visitor – the apparently resurrected Nathan (Jonathan Zaccai), Emma’s late husband!

Despite its gentle pace and rather frothy overtones there is an early hint of a black comedy hidden beneath this curious take on the old Blithe Spirit premise, but François Uzan’s script lacks inspiration and commitment to the themes, and the film eventually runs out of energy and whimsy after Nathan arrives, meandering towards a bathetic denouement.

The damage, as such, is done once we realise that there is no explanation proffered for Nathan’s miraculous return from the dead, not even a suggestion of coincidental magic or metaphysical bluster. The difference is that Nathan isn’t ghost – he is very much a living physical entity that everyone can see hear and touch, but his memories are gone and he refuses to believe he is/was dead. Similarly unexplained is why Nathan was compelled to go to Paul’s apartment after his revival but this is one fancy we can allow.

For a potential love triangle the romantic aspect is sorely underplayed to the point of invisibility taking away any threat or tension to the established relationships. The pairing of Paul and Emma never really gets going as something substantial enough to be in jeopardy by Nathan’s return, while Emma has finally laid her past with Nathan to rest. It is only Adam who needs the subconscious closure but he seems content as he is, especially now Paul is on the scene.

Yet when Nathan is finally reunited with his erstwhile family only Adam is the one he is the most receptive to, Emma being a mystery to him. They begin to reconnect on a superficial level but when they try to get closer, Nathan has vivid memories of a different woman which creates a distance between him and Emma. She is upset at this rejection but considering she had already moved on, Emma is now confused about her feelings.

In a twist which is never fully explained, there is a suggested connection the other woman in Nathan’s life and kooky old Victor, whose reliability on this matter can be brought into question by his erratic behaviour. Victor is  the source of much of the levity in the early going  but in the second half he transforms into a fragile old man, haunted by someone from his past named Pavel.

The central them is about closure and letting go of the past, applying to Emma, Adam and Nathan, since they never got to say goodbye as Nathan was killed abroad on a photography job. Paul is a conduit for this happening but gets caught in the middle through his budding romance with Emma, but he himself is weighed down from the passing of his wife, taking him on his own journey of unburdening his own anchored feelings to move forward again.

While Nathan and Paul get into a few scraps and arguments there is no tug-of-war over Emma’s affections, instead they rumble over Nathan’s refusal to accept he is dead, since he has no memories of his prior life. This is actually quiet amusing and a fresh way to approach a revived character, which if you think about it, makes some sense since we only assume a reanimated corpse will have retain their memories.

But because of this Nathan never feels like a tangible component in the lives of Emma and Adam, thus his integration with his family lacks authenticity. Jonathan Zaccai does as much as he can with the role, but his appearance comes over 40 minutes into the film and what should have been his key motivations – reviving his memories and winning Emma and Adam back – are not given the full attention they deserve.  

Similarly mishandled is Emma, who becomes less a concern as the film progresses. Played by Julie Gayet, more notable in recent times for being the least favourite actress of the wife of French president François Hollande, Emma at first is as enigmatic as Paul but slowly morphs into a just another cast member. She does however convey a convincing bond with son Adam – a sweet and affecting turn from young Jules Rotenberg – and brings palpable emotion to her final scenes.

As Paul, Stéphane Guillon is the workhorse of the film and aesthetically an unlikely lead it has to be said. With a character that is both a catalyst and someone in need of his own emotional release, Guillon has to take Paul on quite a journey and accomplishes this, yet the laconic French attitude feels a little to present in places. His double act with Pierre Richard as Victor is largely joyous and realistic, but the old man’s character has too many quirks for the viewer to get a proper handle on him.

Paper Souls has a lot of potential and some nice ideas which are not fully realised or explored to any real satisfaction. It’s a nice looking film though with its heart in the right place.