A great many people (you know who you are) will dismiss Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls with a blow of a single word: pretentious. Look, this is a movie I’ve categorized as an existential sci-fi/comedy. It stars Paul Giamatti as a—though not necessarily the—Paul Giamatti, who has his soul (well, 95 percent of it) scientifically removed so that he can free himself of his personal burdens and better play Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. If you go to see Cold Souls after reading the above, don’t come crying to me that it’s “pretentious.” The fact is that it is pretentious. Any work that purports to be about the nature of the soul is pretty high in the pretension realm. In this case, it’s also one of the most fascinating movies of 2009.
Barthes’ film—her debut work—has been likened to screenplays by Charlie Kaufman, which is probably inevitable, since there are clear connections to both Being John Malkovich (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). But her film feels very little like either work—perhaps because it lacks the smart-ass attitude that Spike Jonze brought to the former and the visual panache Michel Gondry brought to the latter. Cold Souls is, as its title implies, a somewhat chilly work—slightly detached and standoffish. In this regard, it’s a little like Kubrick, but with a playful vibe of its own. And thank goodness for that playfulness. We have the specter of Woody Allen to thank for that, since the apparent genesis of the film lies in a dream Barthe had that involved Allen having his soul removed and finding that it has the appearance of a chickpea.
Barthe took her chickpea-soul premise and expanded on it—discovering (or deciding) that souls come in a variety of shapes and sizes. She also came up with a company that specializes in the extraction and storage of souls (it’s in the Yellow Pages right after “Self Storage” as “Soul Storage”). The reason for such an enterprise, according to its founder Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), is that souls—especially “twisted ones” as he assumes Giamatti’s to be—can be a burden and ought to be excised like a tumor. Though Giamatti bristles at the idea that his soul is twisted and refuses to allow it to be stored in New Jersey (to avoid taxes), he’s convinced the removal of it will help him as an actor.
The problem is it doesn’t, but when he wants it put back, it turns out that his soul has been stolen by a mysterious woman, Nina (Dina Korzun), who carries souls in and out of Russia like a drug “mule” in her own soul-less self. Temporarily fitted out with the soul of a depressed Russian poet that makes Giamatti’s own soul look positively carefree, Giamatti sets out for Russia to try to get his soul back. That’s the basic story, but it doesn’t do justice to the film—or its tussling with the unanswerable question of what the soul is or what it means to have one. By turns bleakly funny and reflectively somber, Cold Souls is essential viewing for anyone who appreciates adventurous filmmaking. Rated PG-13 for nudity and brief strong language.