ND/NF this weekend: Barthes takes Cold Souls out of storage

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Cold Souls is a plea for the modern human condition. Is one’s essence threaded by the intangible fibers of the soul or is the soul a physical hindrance to true peace? This is the quandary that Paul Giamatti, as himself, must contend with.

The film posits that the soul can be condensed into an organ-like mass, using purposefully vague technological advancements. Once extracted, souls are placed into cold storage and ogled like precious stones by their owners. Giamatti seeks this radical procedure (in the yellow pages!) to rid him of the mounting angst he suffers in rehearsals for a theatrical production of Uncle Vanya. Ironically, it turns out that his tortured soul is the doppelganger to a chickpea. However, without its influence, Giamatti’s acting career holds scant importance to himself.

So even in this absurdist film, the soul does have an unmistakable heft. Dr. Flinstein, in a wry turn by David Srathairn, convinces Giamatti to rent the soul of a Russian “poet.” This temp soul ensures an opening night success, but the corresponding depression and nightmares prove overwhelming for Giamatti. In a sitcom-inspired second half, Giamatti has to travel to Russia and get his chickpea back from a marginal soap opera actress.

Dina Korzun plays the Russian “mule,” Nina, whom nabs Giamatti’s soul. She will be a revelation for American audiences, but years of acclaimed work in Russian and British productions precede her. She enlivens the atmosphere every time she is onscreen. Though she is playing an essentially soul-less character, Korzun provides a human scale to the outlandish set pieces, the comic banter, and the perfectly timed pratfalls. Ultimately, if the soul can be conceptualized as a commodity, then at least the film has the forethought not to take itself too seriously.

Moreover, the cinematography is trance-like. Long tracking shots of Nina walking through barren city streets sumptuously flow in and out of focus as a kaleidoscope of colors radiate behind her head. This is a representation of her wandering, an individuality given over to a paycheck. Also, the eerie dreams that she shares with Giamatti recall a slow-motion, baroque horror film. We enter these alternative realities lithely thanks to a steel focus by the filmmakers.

-Wayne Lorenzo Titus

Wayne Lorenzo Titus also writes for Cinemism.

Buy tickets to Cold Souls: Fri Mar 27: 9 (MoMA) and Sun Mar 29: 5 (FSLC)

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