When first-time director Sophie Barthes conjured up Cold Souls, she had Woody Allen on the brain. The film was born in a dream she had after watching Woody’s sci-fi farce Sleeper, and it revolved around the Woodman archetype: the neurotic, New York creative made miserable by his own obsessive thinking. When she felt the chances were slim to none that Woody would agree to act in a rookie project, the France-born director found her perfect substitute: Paul Giamatti.
Giamatti plays a version of himself anchored in his Merlot-detesting on-screen persona. In other words, the real Paul is playing a fake Paul who is more real to us thanks to his films. “I was aware that a certain amount of persona needed to be there,” he tells us when we sat down with him and Barthes. “I was even aware that it was supposed to be Woody Allen. There’s a type that’s based on me, and then there’s a super type. That’s the type of New Yorker that this is supposed to be. That is what it felt like rather than actually having to be me.”
But Cold Souls is not a New York-based dramatic comedy about failed romances or failed novels. It’s a New York-based dramatic comedy that’s also a sci-fi film… sort of.
Here’s the Charlie Kaufman-tinted plot that’s equal parts Michel Gondry and Andrei Tarkovsky as it is ’70s Woody Allen: Paul is in rehearsal for a typical New York production of Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s bleaker than bleak stage play. The problem with the production is that Paul is too involved with its darkness. It haunts his days and keeps him restless at night. What’s worse, it’s affecting his performance; he’s playing the role with a little too much intensity, even for Vanya.
The solution? A new technique that can extract one’s soul to alleviate frustrations of life.
The soul-free Giamatti does feel a little lighter, and a little more bored perhaps, but the weight of Russia has been lifted off his shoulders. At the next rehearsal, in what we think is the film’s funniest moment, Paul puts on a performance that out-Shatners, Shatner’s absurdist intensity. The soul extraction facility also offers a rental service, so Paul tries on the essence of a Russian poet to curb his overenthusiastic new version of Vanya. When the weight of the new soul proves even more intense than his own Cartesian cyst, he just wants his old soul back.
But there’s a problem… someone has jacked the ontological goods.His quest to track down his former, but at least familiar, burden takes him to St. Petersburg. There Russian gangsters, soul mules, and those desperate enough to sell their souls for cash, take the film down a slightly darker path, but one still punctuated with absurdist humor.
Light-hearted metaphysics aside, Cold Souls is a worthwhile visit because it’s the type of sci-fi film we never get to see: Smart, funny, and with an aesthetic edge that owes as much to Stanley Kubrick as it does to Andrij Parekh’s austere cinematography. Parekh, who also shares an East Village home with Barthes, was given a co-director credit in the festival circuit cut, and is more known for his gritty verite work on Half Nelson and Sugar, which, as Barthes tells us, are the type of films young indie filmmakers are more likely to make.
“Because of budget. You take a big risk (with sci-fi) because I don’t know if people want to go see more metaphysical, absurdist films,” she explains. “Then,” as Giamatti adds with a twinkle in his eye, “it does have to be about ideas.”
Watch the trailer below.