Sophie Barthes's "Cold Souls" belongs to a genre of self-reflexive movie actors playing themselves — and it's one of the few that has nothing to do with Charlie Kaufman. It doesn't take much effort to explain why Kaufman's name must come up here: Paul Giamatti plays himself in an amusingly surreal story that finds him selling his soul to refine his performance in a New York stage production of "Uncle Vanya." Later, eager to be whole again, he journeys to a risky soul-exporting operation in Russia, and eventually into his own tortured mind, to set things right. Cynics might consider it "Being John Malkovich" with slightly modified symbolism, but "Cold Souls" deserves better than that.
Here's the distinction: Functioning on an axis of absurdity, Kaufman's screenplays are uncertain properties that yield widely different results depending which director takes them up. However, one aspect largely remains the same: It's never quite never clear if something has actually happened or not. With "Cold Souls," on the other hand, Barthes builds a fully believable universe around her seemingly ridiculous premise. Giamatti, meanwhile, acts circles around it. Initially, he's too intense for "Uncle Vanya"; later, soulless, he's a lackadaisical cartoon.
Still, the basic outline for "Cold Souls" does suggest a Kaufman-esque dreaminess, and the atmospheric parallels are definitely there if you look for them. At the same time, "Cold Souls" takes a page from much older sources. With constant discussion about the practical ramifications of soul-storage — and the dispiriting reality of physical soul representation, since Giamatti's looks like a pitiful chickpea — the movie often plays like Alfred Jarry's famous proto-surreal play "Ubu Roi," where ridiculous statements become normalized. This is the principle engine of "Cold Souls" as well.
In consultation with his soul-extricating doctor (a grim David Stathairn), whom he first reads about in the New Yorker, Giamatti laments that he feels "hollow" after the procedure. "Soullessness has its peculiarities," comes the reply. After several similar exchanges, Barthes overindulges in the cleverness of her concept, but it's never less than enjoyable to hear such abstract concepts passed off as literal dialogue. A related side plot involves Russian soul smuggler Nina (Dina Korzn ), whose shady boss insists they explore the exportation business. "Who wants to buy an American soul?" she wonders.
The answer, as it turns out, lies with her boss's wife, a soap opera star desiring the soul of Al Pacino. Since he's unavailable, she winds up with Giamatti's pilfered inner self, which sets him on a tumultuous journey to get it back ("She could ruin my soul!" he cries when hearing the details of her trashy career). Despite the actor's willingness to play along with Barthes's outlandish conceit, "Cold Souls" has less to do with Giamatti or modern stardom than it does with the generally misguided desire to change one's identity in pursuit of a better life. "If I were a different man in the same body, would you still love me?" Giamatti asks his fictional wife (Emily Watson). She can't respond. Barthes gives the characters more chances to ask questions than to answer them. The movie turns epistemological without championing one spiritual outlook above all others.
Some Sundance viewers have found "Cold Souls" too slow, derivative or simply low key. Those reactions miss the way the movie thrives on minimalism. Barthes, whose original version of the story came from a dream about Woody Allen losing his soul, develops most scenes as quiet, observational portraits of an alienated artist. The gimmick of soul troubles starts to get a little tedious about halfway through, but then we arrive at the final act — when Giamatti gets to peek inside himself — and the resulting trippy sequence looks like a gothic remake of a Kenneth Anger film. Giamatti the character rediscovers his sensitivity, and Giamatti the actor proves he's up for anything. Barthes, directing her first feature, proves she's up for whatever comes next.