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Being Paul Giamatti in the City of Lost Souls

Cold Souls (2009)

2009 Sundance Film Festival

“Cold Souls” is a film made with such confidence and such a trained eye for nuanced storytelling, that one would be forgiven for mistaking first-time filmmaker Sophie Barthes for a seasoned pro. Deftly balancing its symbolic and philosophical underpinnings with deadpan human comedy, the movie successfully operates on multiple levels.

It transcends what appears at first to be a gimmicky, high-concept premise to arrive at some compelling human truths. Paul Giamatti plays an actor named “Paul Giamatti” and hires a private corporation to extract his soul, so that he can better play “Uncle Vanya” onstage. Run by Dr. Flintstein (David Straithairn), the company invites the disaffected to its sterile modernist offices to surrender their souls in exchange for an emotionless existence. When Paul decides he wants his back and discovers that it’s been trafficked to Russia, an international journey to reclaim it commences.

Ms. Barthes and her real life partner, the veteran director of photography Andrij Parekh, bathe the film in a cloudy gray that reflects the narrative’s plumbing of the murky depths of the conscience. It’s not a picturesque vision of New York City, although the preponderance of natural light that pierces through the clouds throughout gives the picture the sense of a deep rooted connection with the fragility of the human psychological ecosystem. The film is essentially about the liberation of Paul’s soul from the burdens in his head, conveyed in the ways the lighting contrasts with the bleak city streets and imposing corporate constructions.

Rooted in multiple intellectual traditions, including Absurdist Theater and Surrealism, the film instead finds its dramatic center in the pain and turmoil that could cause someone to desire a soulless existence and the profound catharsis of that same person’s awakening to the emptiness of such a life. It takes some time to adjust to the off-kilter reality Ms. Barthes creates, but Mr. Giamatti’s humanist appeal helps a lot and “Cold Souls” thankfully relies more heavily on its humor and its emotions than any academic conceits.


Opens on Aug. 7 in New York and Los Angeles and on Nov. 13 in Britain.

Written and directed by Sophie Barthes; director of photography, Andrij Parekh; edited by Andrew Mondshein; music by Dickon Hinchliffe; production designer, Elizabeth Mickle; produced by Mr. Parekh, Dan Carey, Elizabeth Giamatti, Paul Mezey and Jeremy Kipp Walker; released by Samuel Goldwyn Films (United States) and The Works (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Paul Giamatti (Paul Giamatti), David Strathairn (Dr. Flintstein), Dina Korzun (Nina), Katheryn Winnick (Sveta), Lauren Ambrose (Stephanie), Emily Watson (Claire) and Michael Tucker (Theater Director).


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