Film Review: Cold Souls

Theatrical tale, well-acted, heavy on mood but light on meaning.

Cold Souls starts with an amusing premise—high-tech entrepreneurs devise a way to extract human souls and trade them as commodities—but fails to develop it. Writer and director Sophie Barthes, helming her first feature, shows wit and confidence, and her filmmaking partner, producer and cinematographer Andrij Parekh, captures the wistful, melancholic mood of her script. But the movie’s busy combination of science fiction, satire and absurdity, cloned onto a fairly conventional comedy-drama, favors style over substance. Viewers are encouraged to ponder life’s existential dilemma, but Barthes and Parekh offer only irony and sentiment as cynosures.

Paul Giamatti, playing an actor named Paul Giamatti, finds himself in creative crisis during rehearsals for a production of Uncle Vanya. When he reads about a procedure promising to alleviate angst, he decides to take the cure, which involves a pass through an MRI-like machine that compresses the soul into a portable solid (in Giamatti’s case, a pale pellet resembling a chickpea). Giamatti’s new lightness of being has the opposite effect on his stage work, however, so he rents a substitute soul, that of a Russian poet, to get him through the Chekhov play. The Russian poet proves too weighty for the American thespian, and Giamatti realizes he was better off carting his own spiritual baggage. Unfortunately, a Russian “mule” has stolen his soul to lend to a friend hoping to improve her own acting career in St. Petersburg. Giamatti is forced to fly across the globe in pursuit of himself.

Giamatti, as always, delivers an affecting performance as an actor desperately seeking empathy and inspiration; David Strathairn is even better as the drolly eclept Dr. Flintstein, a metaphysician who literally traffics in souls. The production design by Elizabeth Mickle, from the blanched monochrome of Flintstein’s New York clinic to its black-market counterpart in a decaying warehouse on the St. Petersburg wharf, may be the best thing about the film, visualizing the film’s conceit better than the dialogue.

Therein lies the problem with Cold Souls: Barthes and Parekh don’t have much to say about their subject. Giamatti, as well as Nina (Dina Korzun), the mule whose consciousness has become a mosaic of fragments left over from those she’s transported, never appear much changed by their soul-searching, other than exhibiting a certain disorientation and ill-defined alienation. The human psyche is revealed to be an aggregate of memories, a camcorder capable of replaying past events but unable to make sense of it. Giamatti’s quest to regain his soul lacks suspense, dramatic or philosophical; it’s as though he were in pursuit of a purloined watch that belonged to his great-grandfather…it has sentimental value, but the whole business hardly qualifies as numinous.

Scene by scene, Cold Souls is entertaining. Barthes is a clever writer, destined to be compared to Charlie Kaufman. She and Parekh have the chops to make good films, but they must get beyond mechanics to meaning.