Sophie Barthes’ stunningly smart debut, Cold Souls, stars the always-impressive Paul Giamatti as the actor Paul Giamatti whose soul has become a burden during a production of Uncle Vanya, resulting in his inability to separate himself from the character. Anxious to alleviate the pain Paul seeks out a facility called Soul Storage—“conveniently located on Roosevelt Island” a soothing automated phone message explains—run by David Straithairn’s hilariously laidback Dr. Flintstein. While comparisons to Charlie Kaufman’s work, especially to Being John Malkovich, will inevitably be drawn (the meta lead roles, the soul storage warehouse in “New Jersey,” the gender-bending aspect of male souls taking up in female bodies and vice-versa), Barthes has distinguished herself from the Kaufman machine mainly through the help of her partner and cinematographer/producer Andrij Parekh. Parekh’s elegant lighting and fluid camerawork stand in stark contrast to the off-kilter hyperactive style of Being John Malkovich; Cold Souls is clearly not “A Spike Jonze Film.”
Between the gorgeous cinematography, production design that seems to include hand-me-downs from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey, smooth editing and a barely noticeable score, all the pieces of the filmmaking puzzle snap firmly into place, and get out of the way of Barthes’ ingenious script. This is a hysterical comedy about some serious philosophical concepts (which finds echoes in the Giamatti character’s inability to play comedy since his soul is stuck in a dramatic rut, if you care to go down that rabbit hole). When Paul can no longer relate emotionally once his soul is extracted he learns that empathy loss is often one of the procedure’s side effects—and his acting itself becomes the joke. The solution? He can rent the soul of a Russian poet for the Chekhov run. Da!
This, of course, segues effortlessly into the Russian “soul trafficking” parallel plot, rendering Cold Souls an engaging international thriller, from Coney Island to St. Petersburg, to boot. The intoxicating Dina Korzun (who managed to hold her own onscreen against none other than the scenery chewing Rip Torn in Forty Shades of Blue) plays a mule named Nina whose line of work results in her storing an unhealthy amount of residue soul fragments—including that of the “Russian poet” Paul has rented. And when the wife of Nina’s gangster boss decides that the soul of an American actor is just what she needs to further her soap opera career, the twists and turns that follow are matched only by Barthes’ delightful tragicomic dialogue. “Are you out of your mind?” Paul screams when he learns the purpose for the soul snatching. “She can ruin my soul!”
But in the end it’s the profound existential questions that elevate Barthes’ film to pure artistry. “What happens to the soul when the donor dies?” Paul wonders. Will he be able to reconnect with his soul so it doesn’t reject him as the tortured poet’s one eventually does? (“This soul needs a larger life than mine,” Paul tells Dr. Flintstein in a plea to have it removed.) How can a person connect with loved ones if he can’t even connect with himself? “I still have five percent of my soul. But I rented the soul of a Russian poet,” Paul painfully confesses to his wife Claire (embodied by yet another flawlessly cast actor, Emily Watson) in one laugh-out-loud, heartbreaking scene. And is it possible to lead such a damaged life that one’s soul is lost forever? “Who says you can just go around borrowing people’s souls?” Paul demands of Nina before inquiring as to whether he can buy his back. To which Nina explains that no, her employers are “very wealthy. The only thing they don’t have is talent.” Luckily, Barthes has that—plus heart and soul in spades.