The soul, according to Aristotle, "does not exist without a body." In Sophie Barthes' nervy Cold Souls, the soul indeed exists of its own free will, is attainable, and can take shape. For a price, you can even store it.
In this case, it is the soul of actor Paul Giamatti who takes on the task of playing himself and, for a few brief moments, Uncle Vanya in a new production that is being mounted in NYC. Bothered by the weight of existence, he gets his soul removed at a clinic that he has read about in the New Yorker. As much sight gag as philosophical quandary, his soul turns out to be the exact shape and color of a chickpea. Article continues below
The most cumbersome concept in Barthes' film is the clinic itself: A hyper-modern dentist's office run by the professionally quirky Dr. Flinstein (David Strathairn, aptly off-kilter) and manned by a complacent assistant (Lauren Ambrose). The souls are kept in what looks like an air-conditioned safety deposit box and are taken out at will; there are two "convenient" locations on Roosevelt Island and New Jersey, if you want to avoid certain taxes. The waiting room features bowls of marshmallows.
Needlessly baroque, the film goes through four major movements before it lands, finally, at windswept Coney Island, but it is chiefly a vehicle for Giamatti. The bug-eyed, brilliant character actor is introduced doing a monologue from Vanya; minutes later he's complaining of a pain in chest "like someone put my heart in a vice and tightened it." When his soul is removed, he plays Vanya as if he were Ace Ventura; Russian high drama as performed by the Marx brothers. At home, his wife (the great Emily Watson) can't understand why he can't make love to her or why he is so enthralled by the sight of his feet.
I would have liked to see more of the practical and personal implications in Barthes' film. The story runs aground in the final quarter as Giamatti battles Russian gangsters in the hopes of obtaining his pilfered chickpea. Seeing Giamatti in an ushanka is a nice sight gag, but the film is most fascinating when dealing with his soulless being. The interaction between Giamatti and Watson is genuine and intriguing: The actor's admission that he transposed the soul of a Bolshevik poet into himself to play Vanya seems far graver than an assumed affair. There's also that riotous scene involving Giamatti playing with his food as a friend laments pulling the plug on her ailing mother.
Barthes' film, which she also wrote, is inarguably Kaufman Lite, but I'm not sure if that's something to bemoan. The genius of the concept certainly outweighs the ingenuity of the filmmaking and the script's structure. The film's other half is supported by a "soul mule" named Nina, played by the talented Russian actress Dina Korzun. You may remember Korzun from her breakout role in Ira Sachs' admirable Forty Shades of Blue, and she brings a similar smoldering melancholy to this role. Sent to America on orders to retrieve Al Pacino's soul for the actress wife of a Russian crime lord, Korzun carries the weight not only of a few hundred souls but of the film's clunky, convoluted narrative.