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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Cold Souls
Cold Souls
Fox // PG-13 // March 2, 2010
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Casey Burchby | posted March 6, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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Cold Souls is the first feature film by writer and director Sophie Barthes, and it certainly left me feeling chilly. It's a meandering quasi-comedy with a fun gimmick at the heart of its story. However, the plot never really develops in a substantive way, rendering themes and motivations impenetrable and opaque. The gimmick, therefore, remains a static McGuffin, and by the time the film ends, it's not really clear what has happened or why.

Paul Giamatti plays a fictionalized version of himself. Not a happy man, Giamatti is struggling with the lead role in a production of Chekov's Uncle Vanya. The play is about to open and Giamatti can't get a handle on the character. An article in the New Yorker seems to hold the answer to his problems. It's a profile of an emerging company that offers "soul storage." Giamatti meets with the company's head, Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) who enthusiastically encourages him to partake of the company's services. After parting with his soul, Giamatti feels empty, which he then backfills with the soul of a Russian poet - a woman who sold it on the international black market. When this, too, fails to satisfy his existential crisis, Giamatti asks Flintstein for his own soul back, but it has disappeared - stolen by a Russian woman named Nina (Dina Korzun) for her boss's wife back in St. Petersburg. Giamatti follows the trail of the soul traffickers, looking for his soul.

It sounds like something Charlie Kaufman might have come up with, but Cold Souls is devoid of the inventiveness and wit Kaufman is known for. The movie plays out in an odd, detached, antiseptic way, with no rising or falling story or character arcs - just a bland clean flatness. Giamatti is, as always, excellent, and his performance improves upon the dry script. Cold Souls should have been a comedy - it was marketed that way, and it is tonally a comedy in many ways - yet it is played completely straight and the script contains no real humor.

In addition to Giamatti, Russian actress Dina Korzun provides a good performance as Nina, a "mule" for black market souls who was responsible for stealing Giamatti's and transporting it to St. Petersburg. Her portrayal captures a certain uneasy ambivalence about the nature of her job and the cavalier treatment of souls, both by Dr. Flintstein's company and by her trafficker bosses.

None of the rich and interesting thematic material that might grow from such fertile soil - souls as physical and even commercial objects - is ever developed beyond mere suggestion. The consequences of Giamatti's soul's removal and transference are vague at best; he feels bored, detached, mildly ill, but never explicitly "different." What are we to draw from this? Likewise, Nina's feelings about the business she is a part of are transmitted by the actress's facial expressions, but hardly by her dialogue or the movement of the plot. Her valiant performance beats the odds; it's affecting despite being under-written.

Writer and director Barthes - who was provided rather lavish talent and resources for her first feature - has created a world that is well designed and skillfully shot, but devoid of any real, ahem, soul. The film rests solely upon a gimmick that is played out well beyond the limits of its charm. Despite achieving a certain mood of drifting melancholy and solid, thoughtful performances, Cold Souls is an aimless bore.

The DVD

The Video
For once, Fox has sent out a finished disc instead of a watermarked screener! Cheers to that! And cheers to the enhanced 1.85:1 transfer, too, which is crisp and showcases the movie's nice production design by Beth Mickle - particularly the offices of Dr. Flintstein and the soul extractor machine. The photography by Andrij Parekh is wonderful, particularly in the way it captures St. Petersburg locations in the dead of winter. Blacks are pretty solid, and there are no egregious instances of artifacting.

The Audio
An unspectacular but even Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is the main mix. Occasional ambient surrounds enliven the track, but overall the film takes a quiet, minimalist approach to sound.

The Extras
All we have is a few Deleted Scenes that don't add up to much, and a three-minute look at the design and construction of the soul extractor.

Final Thoughts

Any film that leans too hard on a central gimmick is treading water from the get-go. Crisp, inventive performances from Giamatti and Korzun prevent Cold Souls from being a flat-out failure. Even so, I can only provide a marginal recommendation to rent it.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.

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