Paul Giamatti sells his soul

Cold Souls much more than just a Kauffman knock-off

If a film’s concept is that of a neurotic actor playing a fictionalized version of himself and his soul is physically extracted in order to escape his own crushing inner conflicts reminds you of Charlie Kauffman’s work congratulations you have a flair for the obvious. Though Cold Souls the feature-length debut from writer-director Sophie Barthes undeniably bares thematic resemblance to such Kauffman-penned films as Being John Malkovich Synecdoche New York and most notably Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind it’s neither guilty of homage nor hackery. Cold Souls is its own entity with its own points to make but it’s likely to remain in that Kauffman-shaped shadow.

The film follows Paul Giamatti who plays actor Paul Giamatti star of such films as Sideways and American Splendor . While working on a theatrical production of Chekov’s Vanya Paul becomes lost in the production. Unable to separate the existential despair of his character in the play from his own he turns to a medical clinic that specializes in extracting and storing souls. This eventually puts Paul into contact with Nina (Dina Korzun) a Russian soul mule connected to a questionable soul-trafficking ring who helps him when things predictably go awry.

Of course in a film such as this the plot is merely a conduit for the questions Barthes seeks to address and Cold Souls succeeds admirably here. The nature of the soul is largely skirted over as unknown and unknowable but interesting issues pertaining to identity and personality are brought up. This subject matter won’t be mind-blowing to anyone who has sat through an introduction to philosophy course or who has a working understanding of the various theories of mind-body dualism but Barthes presents her points subtly and allows audiences to come to their own conclusions regarding what happened to Paul during the film in regards to who he is.

Both Giamatti and Korzun shine throughout the film. Though Giamatti has never had difficulty portraying a character racked with neuroses he displays amazing versatility in Cold Souls . He spends most of the film wavering between befuddled confusion indignant outrage and deep remorse but also expertly displays minor differences in the way he carries himself based on his current soul situation. Korzun for her part is given the difficult task of portraying the soul-addled Nina who has accumulated significant residue from her many soul transplants and she does so in an eerily blank way that works wonderfully for a character who may be many people crammed inside one body an empty shell or a bizarre combination of the two.

Through these strong performances and some lovely imagery courtesy of cinematographer Andrij Parekh — the last scene is absolutely gorgeous and says much about the film’s themes without a word of dialogue being spoken — Cold Souls rises above its familiar metaphysical territory. The film suffers in the face of the inevitable Kauffman comparisons and is a cut or two below Kauffman’s work to be sure but it still possess enough merits on its own.