Sophie Barthes' Cold Souls is a beautiful, probing, funny, moving film about everything from the lasting impact of memory to the commodification of the human experience. As a writer-director, Barthes previously explored such territory with her 2007 short Happiness, about a woman factory worker who spots a box labeled "Happiness" in a shop, buys it, and eventually returns it. There's a similar arc to Cold Souls, as the protagonist moves through the requisite stages of denying the essence of self, realizing its importance, and attempting to regain it. But when fleshed out to feature the length the story is truly allowed to flourish, and Barthes invests as much time and effort in the mechanics of the plot as in the creation of honest characters. The film is deliberately paced, but not a frame is wasted. Everything serves the larger emotional journey of the characters and the ultimate point that we're defined as much by what we evoke in others as the images we make of ourselves.
Paul Giamatti plays a beleaguered actor named Paul Giamatti. It wouldn't be quite right to say he's playing himself -- the people surrounding him as his wife/director/etc. are played by recognizable actors who are demonstrably not actually his wife/director/etc., plus this is after all a movie -- but it also wouldn't be accurate to say he's playing a wildly fictionalized version of himself, or even some random actor who happens to share his name. Part of the fun of the film is this blurring of the line between reality and pseudo-reality, this success at pretending some things are more real than others. Having Giamatti play a variant of himself grounds the story in the ordinary world of a working actor even as the film's true premise is rooted in the fantastic. Paul, feeling depressed and unable to cope with the emotional strain of playing Uncle Vanya in a new staging of the Chekhov play, is directed to a story in the New Yorker about a soul-storage facility on Roosevelt Island. Unable to deny his curiosity, he checks it out and discovers a sleek office done in whites and grays that purports to do just what it says: extract the soul for storage, providing for a lighter lifestyle uncluttered by existential weight.
It's impossible to deny the tonal echoes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from the vaguely futuristic tech rigged up with pointless lights to the well-meaning older doctor (here played by David Strathairn) who's doing the selling. But while Charlie Kaufman's screenplay revolved around the unavoidable and indeed necessary pains of love, Barthes' film deals more with the decisions leading up to Paul's opting to have his soul removed, what his life is like without the ability to empathize, and what he starts to become after that. If the earlier film was about the discovery of the importance of self-awareness, then the new one is about what happens next. It's not as if Paul forgets what he did after it's done; rather, the whole point is that he has to learn how to cope with it, from the way it affects his acting to the damage it does to his relationship with his wife, Claire (Emily Watson).
All of which is not to say Barthes has made a 100-minute meditation on the nature of existence, which sounds about as fun as a punch in the eye. No, Cold Souls is sharply funny, its quick-footed humor based in the absurdity of the situations Paul finds himself in and playing that for genuine laughs. (The exchange in which the doctor candidly and unironically advises Paul that he can avoid sales tax by shipping his soul to New Jersey is particularly wonderful.) The best way to describe the film would be as a drama dependent on humor: It knows when to send out a quick punch line just as it knows when to focus on Paul's search for meaning in his own soul. It's a beautiful balancing act, and Barthes pulls it off.
Her cast is uniformly excellent, from the underused Lauren Ambrose as a chipper assistant at the storage facility to Strathairn's believable, earnest authority figure. Watson is predictably strong as Paul's wife, though she exists more for him to play off of, standing in as a proxy for the audience as she reacts to Paul's often erratic behavior as he experiences life without a soul. But it's Giamatti who carries the film and makes it something real. He deploys fantastic and small details for his performance after having his soul removed -- he's able to make his smiles and frowns never quit reach his eyes --but he's also capable of moving through so many different de- and re-souled states that the outlandish premise of the story is never once in doubt. This is the type of role Giamatti made his name on and for which he'll be remembered.
The most interesting aspect of Cold Souls is not the way it deals with the extraction process but the far more dangerous re-insertion of another soul into the user's body. Paul, for instance, instead of having his own soul given back to him, rents for two weeks the soul of a Russian poet. It's a structural tie-in to the second half of the film, which deals with the company's twisted flip of a black-market for souls, but the unsettling ramifications are immediate. The extracted souls are small physical objects kept in canisters, but it's a harrowing moment when Barthes casually makes clear that they're transported in living people, turning renters into invaders and mules into the sickest sense of the word. It's not Paul's experience being soulless that makes him want his own essence back, but the days he spends having someone else's soul where his own used to be. His reasoning (I'm paraphrasing) is that "this soul deserves a grander life than mine." Yet Barthes' dramatic comedy skillfully makes the case that every soul is grand, and Paul's initial reluctance to examine his own soul is the surest way to stifle human understanding. Cold Souls is intelligent, funny, and interesting, the kind of small-scale joy that often too easily slips below the radar. In fact, its central questions call to mind not so much Charlie Kaufman as they do Cormac McCarthy: "Can a man be so hid from himself? And if so who is hid? And from whom?"
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.