Sophie Barthes’ original, thoughtful, borderline downbeat debut takes a fanciful, fruitful idea (what happens to a human if their soul goes AWOL) and runs with the ramifications for all they’re worth. Given the jazziness of the premise, Cold Souls could descend into high-concept buffoonery, but Barthes steers it the other way, creating a darkly comic, always inventive, metaphysical mystery story.
Having Paul Giamatti play Paul Giamatti gives it the whiff of Charlie Kaufman, but Barthes’ approach is even more deadpan. You totally accept the existence of Soul Storage, the shady outfit headed up by Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) that extracts and refrigerates souls, and the predicament the actor finds himself in: bereft of his soul, Giamatti is a happier bunny but a terrible actor. Counterpointed with all the thespian angst, Barthes mounts an engaging subplot about Nina (a sexy Dina Korzun), a Russian soul mule trafficking her wares on a black market for beings, who steals Giamatti’s soul at the behest of a rich Russian.
Spinning off from such great plot foundations, Barthes layers on lovely visual ideas — once extracted, Giamatti’s soul is the size of a shrivelled chickpea. She also finds poignancy in the notion of a soul mule — Nina carries a residue of all the souls she has carried, taking pieces of the people she has met around with her — but is not above a joke. The Russian wants the essence of a big-name American actor to help his struggling soap actress wife but has to settle for Giamatti, whose face on hearing the soul A-list is priceless.
The absurdities mount as it goes along (needing help with Chekhov, Giamatti asks for the soul of a Russian poet but receives one from a factory worker), yet the mundanity surrounding the sci-fi remains in check. Barthes is helped by cinematographer Andrij Parekh who, when the action switches to St. Petersburg, daubs the film in muted tones, and her lead actor perfectly playing with his sad sack persona. Early in the film, Giamatti is half-recognised by a stranger in the street, a summation of his status in the Hollywood pecking order. Cold Souls won’t up his profile, but it proves when you want a certain kind of schlub, there’s nobody better.