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Sundance Review: Cold Souls

A wildly imaginative and ambitious piece of science fiction, Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls, anchored by a very strong performance from Paul Giamatti, could just be one of the more peculiar, conversation-inducing films of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
By  · Published on January 22nd, 2009

In general, covering the Sundance Film Festival forces me to be relatively quick with my reviews. With the average day bringing four new movies to be reviewed, it is important to constantly execute the critical clean and jerk, whereas I try and finish all of the reviews by the end of the day. In some cases I am even lucky enough to get one film’s review done before the next film begins. Of course there are risks here — the risk of making major errors in the rush to get the review online or the risk of not thinking through my thoughts before committing them to page. Then there are rare days like today, when I am thankful that I didn’t just burn through reviews of the films that I saw as the day wore on. Because by letting them stew a bit, it allowed me to properly process them. And in the case of director Sophie Barthes’ sci-fi dramedy Cold Souls, this is a very good thing.

Cold Souls stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Giamatti, an actor who experiencing a great deal of anxiety in preparation for a role in the classic Russian play Uncle Vanya. Quickly realizing that his emotional state is a detriment of his work, Paul takes the advice of his agent — and an article in The New Yorker — and consult the affable Dr. Flintstein, played by David Strathairn. Flintstein runs an experimental service called “Soul Storage,” in which a person’s soul can be removed and stored, relieving the patient of any existential burden. Yet as Paul finds out, the side effects of soul removal include becoming bizarrely buoyant and blithely callous. This causes even more frustration, leading him to “rent” the soul of a Russian poet so as to save his role in the play.

As you might expect, this doesn’t serve as a permanent solution either. Paul begins to have strange visions and decides that the best course of action is to just get his soul back and move on with his life and career. Unfortunately his plans to reclaim his soul are dashed when a mysterious, soul-trafficking Russian “mule,” played by Dina Korzin steals his stored soul and takes it back to Russia for an ambitious, but talentless, soap-opera actress. Suddenly thrust into the middle of a twisted black market of international soul trafficking, the actor journeys halfway around the world to reclaim what he’d so readily given away.

It is a wildly imaginative story, which can be pegged somewhere in between science fiction and science fantasy. While clever and impressively unique, the story never goes into too much detail about the removal and implanting of souls. It takes the time that more dedicated work of science fiction would use to explain the development of this technology and spends it on Paul’s weighty emotional story and the effects — both physical and emotional — of losing one’s soul. Left in the hands of a less visionary director, this film could very well have been a silly affair, but Sophie Barthes works hard to keep it both visually interesting and poignant. There to help her is another rock solid performance from Paul Giamatti. With perfect timing and a great sense of irony, his performance draws laughs from the audience even in some of the film’s seemingly serious moments. He delivers a character so compelling that we are kept above water, kept from thinking about the improbability of it all.

And such is this film’s charm. Combined with an impressive visual style from Barthes, it is Giamatti’s performance that makes it all work. It is a film that, while it doesn’t have a very intense rhythm (read: it’s slow at times), it is still very interesting. It reminds me of something that Charlie Kaufman might conjure up — a sort of Eternal Sunshine meets Being John Malkovich with some really crazy sci-fi themes thrown in for good measure. It does get a little brooding and feel a bit lax at times, but it is also one of the most peculiar and intriguing movies I’ve seen thus far in Park City. It is a real conversation starter and the kind of film that could help propel a talented young to much larger and more lucrative projects.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)