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Cold Souls (DVD Review)

23 Feb, 2010 By: John Latchem

Street 3/2/10
Box Office $0.9 million
$19.98 DVD
Rated ‘PG-13’ for nudity and brief strong language.
Stars Paul Giamatti,
David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun.

Remember that “Simpsons” episode where Bart sells his soul for $5 to prove he doesn’t need one, only to spend the rest of the episode miserable without it? Cold Souls is a lot like that, only much more bizarre in a way a live-action treatment of the material would have to be. The result is a delightfully dark comedy that makes us question the very nature of our existence.

Paul Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti, though I hesitate to refer to the character as a fictionalized version of himself. Struggling to grasp the nuance in his performance in a production of Uncle Vanya, he comes across an article about Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) who specializes in removing souls and storing them in cold storage. The intended result is to unburden the patient of his or her troubles.

Most movies would portray Flintstein as an obvious fraud, but Cold Souls assigns legitimacy to his methods. He sticks Paul in a giant soul-sucking machine, which converts the soul into some mundane object that is stored in a jar (in Paul's case, a chickpea).

To add to the complexity of the situation, a woman named Nina continuously visits Flintstein to deliver souls trafficked from Russia and purchased by mobsters from the poor. Flintstein offers his clients a chance to experience these other souls.

Paul chooses what he thinks is a Russian poet, which helps him in his play. But Paul begins having visions of the soul owner’s life and is overwhelmed. He wants his old soul back, only to learn Nina has stolen it to give to her boss’ wife, who is a Russian soap opera actress.

At its core, Cold Souls is an exploration of the relationship between soul and identity. In its examination of the human soul, the film reveals its own: the tug-of-war between the spiritual and physical realms. Does a self-proclaimed intelligent species such as ours still need to cling to divine concepts to maintain our happiness? It’s no accident that Paul’s decent into despair after losing his soul takes him to the icy wastelands of Russia.

Writer-director Sophie Barthes has decided to swim in the pool usually reserved for the likes of Charlie Kaufman. The esoteric nature of metaphysical reality on display here makes Cold Souls the spiritual successor to such works as the Kaufman-penned Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Cold Souls is anchored by two of my favorite performers, Giamatti and Strathairn, both at the top of their game. Russian actress Dina Korzun is equally effective as the soul mule, whose own life is falling apart as a result of the residual traces of all the souls building up in her head.

The film has been available as a rental since Feb. 2. Unfortunately, the DVD offers nothing like a commentary or featurette in which the filmmakers discuss the themes they explore. This DVD version is sparse on extras, offering only a handful of deleted scenes and a featurette about the simple yet elegant design of the soul extractor, and how it adds to the tone and charm of the film.


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