Belgian director Vincent Lannoo displays a more whimsical side to his usual blackly comic preoccupations in this absurdist Parisian rom-com.
Paul (Stephane Guillon) is a depressed novelist, still mourning the death of his wife 5 years previous. But that’s not why the start of the movie finds him in a cemetery. He’s there to observe Madame Thomassin (Marie-Jeanne Maldague) deliver an acerbic graveside eulogy for her late husband; said eulogy being the handiwork of Paul. Afflicted with writer’s block he has not written anything except eulogies since his wife died. Thomassin’s niece Emma (Julie Gayet) approaches him to write about her late husband Nathan (Jonathan Zaccai), a photojournalist killed in Mauritania a year before, as an 8th birthday present for her son Adam (Jules Rotenberg), who is in denial that Nathan is dead. Paul accepts the job, despite pressure from his neighbour Victor (Pierre Richard) to hop in bed with the attractive widow. And then Nathan appears at his door…
From the first strains of a clarinet-heavy jazz score there’s a definite Woody Allen vibe off of this French/Belgian co-production, but not in the sense of Sophie Lellouche’s Paris-Manhattan. Whereas Lellouche successfully set up Allen scenarios, only to channel the vibe without the one-liners, TV writer Francois Uzan’s screenplay is at times riotously funny. Claudine Baschet’s Hortense, who keeps her stuffed dead cat on display, and listens to Paul’s eulogies about her on her iPod is a delightful supporting character. But it is Pierre Richard who steals the show as Paul’s elderly Jewish neighbour Victor, whose research into the Warsaw Ghetto is continually derailed by his need to meddle in Paul’s love life with endless ‘helpful’ nagging. Victor’s trip to the shops with Paul is a minor masterpiece. And that’s before addressing the return of amnesiac Nathan from the dead.
Paper Souls plays the return of Nathan, rudely interrupting the romance of Paul and Emma, totally deadpan. The question of how Nathan could have been mistakenly buried alive sees such daft reactions as local guide Diarra (Alain Azerot) musing that sometimes in Mauritania people come back, if they have a door to close. The treatment of totally nonsensical moments as perfectly normal at times emulates Allen’s similar treatments of the fantastical in Purple Rose of Cairo and Deconstructing Harry. And, to boot, Lannoo stages some wonderful slapstick as Paul attempts to sneak Nathan around Paris, without Emma or Adam seeing him, in an attempt to jog Nathan’s memory. Paper Souls then does something rather unusual. It leaves comedy behind and embraces full-blown magic realism. It’s a bold move, and is quite a gear change, but it achieves an affecting ending.
Paper Souls showcases a fine supporting turn from Pierre Richard (in what would be the Alan Arkin/Donald Sutherland role in a remake) and manages to combine rather good comedy with unexpected and affecting drama.