The shadow of Charlie Kaufman looms unignorably large over Sophie Barthes’ first feature “Cold Souls,” which stars Paul Giamatti as a well-known and very serious actor named Paul Giamatti, who’s finding that his role in a upcoming stage production of “Uncle Vanya” is weighing on him. An article in the New Yorker steers him to a service being pitched to wealthy New Yorkers looking to lighten their metaphysical load by having their souls removed and stored, and soon Giamatti is in the care of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), who professes, not reassuringly, that his company has no idea how their process works. Extracted, Giamatti’s soul takes the form of a chickpea. But while he no longer feels troubled — in fact, he no longer feels much at all — his soullessness isn’t doing much for his acting. He falls down the rabbit hole of international soul trafficking, renting what he’s told is a Russian poet’s soul imported by a professional mule (Dina Korzun) who, incidentally, has secretly borrowed Giamatti’s soul at her mobbish boss’ orders, as his soap star wife feels it’ll help her with her craft.
Brighton Beach, Russia, Manhattan, Roosevelt Island — they’re all chilly-looking realms in “Cold Souls,” one in which the unwelcome forces of economics, whimsically conceived as they may be, have stretched icy fingers into places they don’t belong. But while the film has plenty of the witty throwaway touches typical of, or at least a fair approximation of, Kaufman (to avoid sales tax, a customer can choose to have his or her soul shipped to New Jersey for cheaper storage), it lacks the solidity of his cockeyed universes, in which everything’s askew but remarkably consistent and terribly human. Halfway through Barthes’ film, the logic falters — why can souls regenerate from almost nothing? What happens to a soul when its source dies? What’s so bad about building up soul residue? — and the set-up starts to seem too much like a metaphor. A metaphor for the acting process, even, in which someone tries on something like another’s soul in order to embody a character on stage or screen, and in which a bit of that character could unwittingly linger even after the role is over. That’s not enough, for me, to justify the film’s sense of pervasive melancholy, which in its reverence for the high arts as the greatest indicators of soulfulness, seems a little facile.
“Cold Souls” currently has no U.S. distribution. See all of IFC.com’s Sundance coverage here.
[Photo: “Cold Souls,” Journeyman Pictures, 2009]