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Cold Souls

A dark comedy-slash-slightly surreal meditation on the soul.

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Soul patrol: David Strathairn and Paul Giamatti examine a few specimens.
  • Soul patrol: David Strathairn and Paul Giamatti examine a few specimens.

Feeling out of sorts? Burdened or gloomy? It may be your soul holding you back. Fortunately, there's a solution: Technology now allows your soul to be removed and safely stored, so you can carry on with life in a more productive manner.

That's the starting premise of writer-director Sophie Barthes' debut feature, Cold Souls, a dark comedy-slash-slightly surreal meditation on the soul set in (of course) New York City.

That's where we find an actor named Paul Giamatti (played by Paul Giamatti). He's in rehearsals for Chekov's Uncle Vanya, but it just isn't going very well. His agent tips him to the soul-storage business. Giamatti -- being a typical broody, self-absorbed actor looking for an edge -- journeys to Roosevelt Island to investigate having his soul removed.

The pleasant Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) shows off the sleek, modern office and explains the simple procedure. The extracted souls are stored in glass jars and are a variety of odd shapes and colors. Says Flintstein: "We don't know the forces that shape our souls." The doctor also boasts of storing celebrity souls. (Which celebs did you already assume were soulless?)

No sooner does Giamatti whine, "I can no longer separate myself from the character -- I feel stuck," than he's headed for the big MRI-type tube to be de-souled. (What his extracted soul looks like is a nod to an old Woody Allen joke.) Separated from his soul, Giamatti reports feeling "hollow ... lighter ... bored ... great." "All normal," beams Dr. Flintstein.

Of course, you've already guessed that not having a soul is going to mess Giamatti up. He feels disconnected from his wife (Emily Watson) and at his next rehearsal, he delivers a hilariously "off" performance. 

While he broods in Manhattan, Barthes shows us a more troubling side of the soul-removal biz: There's a lively trade in the selling and illegal transporting of souls, run -- naturally -- by thuggish Russians. Caught in the middle is the mysterious Russian Nina (Dina Korzun), who smuggles souls between Russia and Dr. Flintstein's office within her own being.

When Giamatti, realizing that a soulless life is no solution, returns to the office retrieve his own soul, it's gone missing. (Nina has sold it to a Russian.) Dr. Flintstein loans him one of the black-market souls, that of a Russian poet. While Giamatti's performance in Vanya improves, he is troubled by visions and feelings, presumably still stored in the other soul. Nina intercedes, and the two travel to St. Petersburg, hoping to sort out all the misaligned souls.

Barthes' film isn't as loopy (or maddening) as some of Charlie Kaufman's cinematic who-am-I-really ponderings, nor is it as smugly post-modern. Cold Souls has the air of a clinical sci-fi thriller, while remaining primarily a tweedy rumination about the nature of the soul in all its permutations (wholly intact, a remaining fragment, borrowed or out on loan).

While Barthes treats this self-examination seriously, there's also an implicit bemused critique of our bourgeois obsession with our interior lives. The weary workers in Russia who line up to cash in their souls presumably haven't the luxury of such idle self-reflection. 

Yet, the film also resonates with plenty of humor, whether it's the obvious snarkiness from Giamatti, such as his mock horror at the suggestion he could store his soul more cheaply in New Jersey, to the work's more classical in-jokes. (The title is a riff on Gogol's Dead Souls, and the bizarre aerial-tram journey Giamatti makes to Roosevelt Island recalls other limbos, those not-quite-here-nor-there locations where souls are apt to be more detachable.)

Cold Souls does grow more dreamlike in the final reel -- right up to an enigmatic conclusion -- but rather than become solipsistic, Barthes hews to her relatively simple conceit of soul-removal, soul-swapping and, if you'll forgive the pun, soul-searching. What begins as a winky comedy about the self-absorbed ends as a surprisingly emotional affirmation of humanity. Making a theatrical debut with an existential broody comedy is a quite a leap, but Barthes has nailed her landing with this thoughtful yet entertaining feature. In English, and some Russian, with subtitles. Manor

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