Paper Souls (Les Ames de Papier): Film Review

Ricard Vaz Palma
A charming and touching dramatic comedy about death that somewhat loses its way in the third act.

Belgian director Vincent Lannoo shows his softer side in this Paris-set Christmas tale starring Stephane Guillon, Julie Gayet and Jonathan Zaccai.

A low-spirited Parisian funeral-speechwriter gets a new lease on life when he meets a young widow who commissions a rather unusual piece of prose for her 8-year-old son in the gentle dramatic comedy Paper Souls (Les Ames de Papier), from Belgian director Vincent Lannoo.

The film has some supernatural and ghost elements and will thus invariably recall A Christmas Carol for Anglophone audiences, though this story of a mother and her son, who has blocked any memory of his late father, and the funeral oration author who helps them overcome the problem, is made of a more gentle and comical cloth, even if screenwriter Francois Uzan struggles in the film's second half to keep everything as streamlined as possible.

Released on Christmas Day in France, the modest but emotionally, often surprisingly specific film, which is set around the holidays, should be able to attract a small crowd of art house faithful and could interest niche distributors offshore, especially those that have experience marketing small French films without major stars and that are looking for a holiday-themed charmer for next year.

Paul (Stephane Guillon), once a successful novelist, likes to wallow in self-pity ever since he became a widower five years earlier. Unable to let go, he's become a funeral-speech writer, delivering thoroughly researched and beautifully written eulogies that the client can then read at the funeral of the loved one, often passing it off as his or her own work.

The degree of anonymity perfectly suits Paul, who has become practically invisible for everyone except for his next-door neighbor, the aged researcher Victor (Pierre Richard), who's Jewish. Victor, who's investigating ghosts from the Holocaust, worries about Paul, and thus he's happy when a pretty widow in her early forties, Emma (Julie Gayet), asks Paul for a special piece of writing: an account of the life of her late war-photographer husband, Nathan. His funeral happened some years ago already, but she hopes Paul's work will help her son, Adam (Jules Rotenberg), remember his father on his 8th birthday.

Initially Paul resists, claiming he doesn't write about people who have been dead for more than a week. But Emma, who owns a bookshop on the Canal St. Martin, insists, and it is her warmth and need, as well as her close but clearly somewhat uneasy bond with Adam, that finally convince him to give it a shot -- only to discover, some 40 minutes into the film, that his writing has a rather unusual side effect: The supposedly dead Nathan (Jonathan Zaccai) shows up one night, knocking on Paul's door.

Screenwriter Uzan and Lannoo never really try to explain the metaphysics of it all. Instead they simply embrace the fact that Nathan's back. Nathan is an interesting and unusual romantic-comedy foil for Paul, who of course has started to develop feelings for Emma, and also for Emma herself, who has no idea what to do with someone whose death she finally felt she'd been able to accept after a long period of mourning. That said, Nathan is never really credibly integrated into the story, and the plot and the characters' motivations become increasingly muddled in the closing act, when plot twists tend to overwhelm the characters' emotions.

Gast Waltzing's initially brassy, overly busy score signals that none of this should be taken too seriously, and indeed there's a kindly comic vein that pervades the material throughout. But thankfully Lannoo doesn't lose sight of the literature and articulates initially withdrawn characters' complex emotions, which Guillon and Gayet suggest in beautifully understated fashion. Indeed, this is probably the most mainstream and mildest work to date of the director of slightly subversive fare such as Vampires and In the Name of the Son.

The film looks lovely on what must have been a modest budget, with the detailed work of production designer Veronique Sacrez being the below-the-line standout.

Opens: Dec. 25 (in France)
Production companies: Liaison Cinematographique, Artemis Productions, Samsa Film, Nord-Ouest Films, RTBF
Cast: Stephane Guillon, Julie Gayet, Jonathan Zaccai, Pierre Richard, Jules Rotenberg
Director: Vincent Lannoo
Screenwriter: Francois Uzan
Producers: Patrick Quinet, Claude Waringo, Serge Zeitoun
Co-producers: Christophe Rossignon, Arlette Zylberberg, Philip Boeffard
Director of photography: Vincent Van Gelder
Production designer: Veronique Sacrez
Music: Gast Waltzing
Editor: Frederique Broos
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 100 minutes.