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Film Review: Cold Souls

Benjamin Walker
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PARK CITY -- A dark comedy with a piquant metaphysical bite, this assured feature from writer-director Sophie Barthes imaginatively joins a high-concept script with a distinctive visual style. "Cold Souls" has ample potential to go the distance on the festival circuit and on to a focused theatrical release with the backing of an attentive distributor.

Barthes' narrative competition title turns on the conceit of Paul Giamatti playing himself in the role of a dejected and anxious stage actor. Late in rehearsals for a New York production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, Giamatti is experiencing escalating emotional and physical distress, while finding it increasingly difficult to separate himself from the titular character. By chance he discovers a "soul storage" company, which for a fee extracts his chickpea-sized essence and stores it in a bank-like vault at a lab on Roosevelt Island.

Although the process makes Paul uncomfortable by raising impenetrable philosophical questions, he feels immediately lighter and less stressed afterwards. But before long, he finds that getting by on the 5% of his soul that's left over after the extraction leaves him feeling hollow and lifeless. At the suggestion of the lab's Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), Paul rents the soul of a supposed Russian poet as a substitute for his own.

This turns out to be a bad idea, as he's plagued by despair and strange visions of the previous owner's life. Attempting to retrieve his soul from Dr. Flintstein, he discovers that it's missing -- stolen by Nina (Dina Korzun), a Russian soul-trafficking mule. Paul persuades Nina to take him to St. Petersburg, where his spirit has been transferred into the body of a young soap opera actress, the wife of Nina's thuggish Russian boss. In order to retrieve his soul, Paul must decide how badly he wants his old life back, and how far he's willing to go to get it.

While comparisons to "Being John Malkovich" may be inevitable, Barthes -- a former Sundance screenwriters and directors lab fellow -- displays a self-assured narrative and visual style, immersing her characters in a mysterious world where appearance and reality disconcertingly diverge. At the same time, she amusingly tweaks the contradictions of Paul's Jungian journey, exposing the inherent absurdity of his existential dilemma.

Giamatti is aptly cast, playing his own persona with awkward anxiety and suitably skewed humor. As the Russian soul smuggler, Korzun finds the right blend of determination and bewilderment suitable to her strange task.

Barthes capably directs the cast with a combination of cool detachment and persistent scrutiny, while impressionistic dream sequences lend an air of melancholy lyricism, abetted by cinematographer Andrij Parekh's handheld camerawork and evocative lighting.

Production: Two Lane Pictures and Winner Arts Limited present a Journeyman Pictures/Touchy Feely Films production
Cast: Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Dina Korzun, Emily Watson, Katheryn Winnick, Lauren Ambrose
Director-screenwriter: Sophie Barthes
Producers: Dan Carey, Elizabeth Giamatti, Paul Mezey, Andrij Parekh, Jeremy Kipp Walker
Executive producers: John Hynansky, D.J. Martin, James Shifren
Director of photography: Andrij Parekh
Production designer: Elizabeth Mickle
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Costume designer: Erin Benach
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
Sales: Cinetic Media

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

No rating, 101 minutes