Grief is a most peculiar thing.
While its effects are reasonably universal no matter who you are, how it manifests itself is a different as each person cursed to live through its torturous, soul-eviscerating cycle of loss, sadness, regret and loneliness, an unpalatable reality of being that Belgian director Vincent Lannoo captures in a charmingly unique way in Les Âmes de papier or Paper Souls.
The obtusely poetic title refers the funeral eulogies that Paul (Stephane Guillon), a one time successful novelist who lost his heart for fiction upon the death of his beloved wife five years earlier, writes for a variety of clients, all of whom seem manifestly unable but desperately grateful to have someone to craft their final thoughts on the dearly, or not-so-dearly, departed to whom they must pay their respects.
His unusual choice of vocation is the result of his grief, which has him marooned in a world he can never recover, lamenting the loss of a woman he is adamant can never be replaced.
So rather than move on, he chooses to stay in his old apartment, ghostwriting heartfelt tributes to people who, more often than not, are not always the shining beacons of love and generosity that the gifted, grieving writer makes them out to be, and dealing with his quirky neighbours, the off-with-the-pixies Hortense (Claudine Baschet) and firmly eccentric Viktor (Pierre Richard), both of whom are dealing with grief in their own unusual ways.
Hortense finds solace in the loss of her clearly long departed and much-loved dog by taking his taxidermic remains with her wherever she goes – he appears at the dinner table, while she knits and watched television, eternally, faithfully near his old owner whether he likes it or not.
An aged, emotionally-volatile but genially alcoholic Viktor, by contrast, seems entombed in his rabbit warren of an apartment which is filled to the brim with mysterious, haphazardly-organised boxes, unable to stop searching for some sign that his brother, who perished in World War Two after he was taken from the Warsaw Ghetto, left some remnant of his life behind, such as a story or a drawing, in common with many of the Jewish people there who determined, even in their final days, that there must be a record of their time on Earth.
Viktor’s whole life has been a product of his grief, its every twist and turn shaped by the loss he experienced at a very young age and yet despite his all-consuming stuck-in-time quixotic quest to find some evidence of his brother’s passing, he turns out to be the one person who is able to convince Paul to re-engage with the living world around him when a recently-widowed woman, Emma (Julie Gayet) turns up seeking his services for a most unusual project.
Concerned that her son Adam (Jules Rotenberg) has ceased to talk about or even acknowledge the existence of his dead father, Nathan (Jonathan Zaccai), who lost his life only a year before in Mauritania when a land mine exploded under his four wheel drive while he was out photographing, she asks Paul to craft a memoriam to her late husband as a gift for Adam’s upcoming eighth birthday.
Agreeing to this unusual brief, he begins to spend time with Emma, something he does with all his clients to gather the information he needs to write the requested eulogy, and is the way of these things in light, frothy romantic comedies of a sort, begins to fall in love with her and she with him.
It’s at this point that this reasonably conventional film takes an unexpected and highly whimsical turn when Nathan suddenly appears large as life, and uncertain of who he is or why is here, at Paul’s door in the dead of night, an occurrence neither man is expecting nor entirely certain about how to handle.
The suggestion is that an antique wind-up toy metal monkey on a bike, which Paul tells Adam has the magical power to grant three wishes, is responsible for this turn of events, a fulfilment so says Nathan’s old guide of a Mauritanian idea that the dead can return if they have unfinished business to attend to.
Nathan most certainly has that, having never got the chance to properly say goodbye to his wife and child, but quite why he is at Paul’s door is a mystery (though the implied suggestion is that Paul is an integral part of Emma’s future and thus must be involved in closing off her grief-stricken past).
While Paper Souls doesn’t quite manage to tick all the boxes it’s aiming for, with Paul and Emma’s relationship barely having time to form before Nathan, who never really connects fully with Emma or Nathan, who he sadly doesn’t remember, appears on the scene – it makes the whole unfinished business a little difficult to prosecute at times as you might imagine – it is on the whole a sweet, quirkily imaginative look at the business of grieving and how hard it is to move on from this most paralysing of emotional states.
Suffused with more verbal and physical slapstick than you might initially suspect – Nathan’s arrival at a shocked Paul’s door, and just about every interaction Paul has with the Viktor, likely the standout character of the entire film, are the highlights of the film’s propensity to play for farce as much as poignancy – Paper Souls manages to makes some serious points about life, loss, death and love while never taking itself entirely too seriously.
It is a credit to Lannoo’s expert direction that this tricky to balance mix never tips too far one way or another, and while the final scenes are possibly tied with too neat of a bow – French and European films are generally known for their aversion to the cloyingly emotional endings of which Hollywood is inordinately fond – they are heartwarming and touching, a reminder that though you may feel the sting of grief, and its pain may feel incurably permanent, that a new lease on life, and love, awaits if you are willing to look for it, even in the most unexpected of ways.