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Out of Frame: Cold Souls

David Strathairn (Dr. Flintstein) and Paul Giamatti (Himself) in Cold Souls, directed by Sophie Barthes
Theoretically, Paul Giamatti could make any movie funnier and smarter than its script and director had originally made possible. That seemed to be the strategy of novice director and screenwriter Sophie Barthes. Like her only previous work in English, a short about the concept of actually finding happiness in a box, Cold Souls intends to be both whimsical and philosophical. Giamatti plays himself, an actor with the same name struggling to find his way into the character of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Reading an article in -- where else -- The New Yorker, he learns of the cutting-edge business of soul storage, the latest "it" trend among New Yorkers, allowing them to remove their soul and all of its baggage and place it in storage. Without much thought or any consultation with his wife (Emily Watson), Giamatti takes the tram to an office on Roosevelt Island and undergoes the procedure in the office of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), discovering in the process that his soul, when extracted, resembles a chickpea. Barthes, who mines her own dreams for ideas, reportedly credits part of the idea to Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls, about a Russian entrepreneur who purchases the souls of dead peasants, relieving landowners of the need to pay taxes on their deceased serfs.

Paul Giamatti (Himself) and Dina Korzun (Nina) in Cold Souls, directed by Sophie Barthes
Whatever is being extracted in those fancy machines, part MRI and part death ray -- or not being extracted, as it may be some sort of elaborate fraud, for all one can tell -- has a nebulous connection to the person's life and personality. The only thing that Giamatti seems to lose is a certain amount of neurotic inhibition, noted especially as he makes some inexplicably odd and hilarious choices rehearsing Uncle Vanya. Even as Paul learns that his soul has been stolen, part of the inevitable rise of soul trafficking in Russia, it is difficult to take the loss of his soul all that seriously. He meets Nina (Russian actress Dina Korzun), a soul mule who has had many souls implanted in her body, carrying them back and forth to and from Russia, until the fragments left behind by those souls build up to a dangerous level. For some reason, she travels with Paul to St. Petersburg, to help him get his soul back from a vapid model and Russian oligarch's girlfriend, who has had it implanted to help her acting career. It is also a great excuse to have Giamatti wear a ridiculous fur hat in the Russian scenes.

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So, the soul is really not serious business in Cold Souls, and there is no deep metaphysical question or enigma like that in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, whose bleak atmosphere Barthes appears to be emulating at times. Nor is there an abundant supply of humorous whimsy, as in Gondry's unforgettable look into one character's fantasy world in La science des rêves or in the magic-realist scripts of Charlie Kaufman (especially Being John Malkovich, but also Adaptation.). The joke of Cold Souls, such as it is, was extended by the production company with a fake Web site for the Soul Storage company. It's fine that the soul does not mean anything in this version of the universe, but long before the end of the film, I had ceased caring about Paul and his quest to have something so meaningless returned.

Cold Souls is now playing at the Shirlington Cinema in Virginia and the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C.


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more. When you mentioned Barthes mining her dreams for content I was wondering, "Was that directly after a Kaufman film festival?"
Giamatti was the sole saving grace and, yes, the 'Vanya' rehearsals were tonally perfect and amusing but really the only place where evidence of some loss could be noticed.
Always glad to have original content like this in the summer but felt like the concept missed blatant opportunities for deeper thought and richer humor.

Charles T. Downey said...

I so wanted to like it, much more than I actually did. Like Giamatti, like the funky concept, the cinematography was nice, so much apparently to like. *fizzle*