Posted August 28, 2009 by William Dunmyer in Best of 2009

Cold Souls: Haunting

Originally written August 2009

Cold Souls is a wonderful, deeply felt film about that mysterious thing in human life that we call “soul.” It is writer/director Sophie Barthes‘ first feature film, and hers is the most exciting filmmaking debut of 2009.

One criticism is that the somberness goes a bit too far in the second half of the film. The gloomy tone is weakened a bit by its relentlessness. I would encourage Barthes to think more about the power of shifting moods. 

I also think there is too much similarity to the work of Charlie Kaufman. I’m fairly certain that every viewer will be reminded of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind especially, but also Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York.

In her next films, Barthes needs to develop ideas less apt to be perceived as derivative. This shouldn’t be difficult as she has qualities that go well beyond the Kaufman-esque.

As an example, Barthes has an internationalism that is stunning and distinctive. I hope in the future she emphasizes qualities such as these. (Cold Souls was filmed in the U.S. and Russia and has an international cast.)


Paul Giamatti plays a character much like himself. In fact, the character (in a slightly pretentious and unnecessary attempt at postmodernism) is named Paul Giamatti. He is a film and stage actor who resembles Woody Allen in his protracted and slightly comical existential angst. There are some comic elements in Giamatti’s portrayal, but for the most part Cold Souls is more haunting and disturbing than zany. Many people in the film are seriously broken, and watching their distress is not at all funny.

At the start of the film, Giamatti is in rehearsals for a major production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, where he has the leading role. Plagued with self-doubt and anxiety and wearied by his many years of anguish, the actor has an open mind when he learns of an experimental process whereby people have their souls extracted from their bodies. It makes you feel “lighter,” everyone says who has gone through it. Life is made a bit more simple and easy. Desperate and barely able to handle life, the actor decides to try it.

The funniest scenes come when he first learns about the procedure from the chief scientist (a long-haired David Strathairn) and his blithely oblivious assistant (Lauren Ambrose). Especially hilarious is Giamatti’s reaction when he sees his extracted soul and it resembles a chickpea.

Barthes interweaves a separate storyline that is initially enigmatic but gradually is clarified for the viewer. It involves a Russian woman who visits the soul-extracting facility frequently and is often in a mysterious kind of stupor. All is not right with this woman; that much is clear. Especially disturbing are the ethereal visions she occasionally has of a group of children in what looks like a Russian orphanage. Played by an astonishing Russian actress named Dina Korzun, this character brings immeasurable depth to the film. I hope Korzun is given consideration for Best Supporting Actress come awards time.

Gradually the mystery of the Russian woman is solved, and this is when the film becomes more serious and disturbing. I will not spoil the surprise by divulging the details. I’ll just say that this woman’s experience gives her a unique vantage point from which to contemplate the inner lives of many other people.

We come to learn more about Giamatti as well, including a gorgeous, deeply moving tour of his soul. The sequences where the viewer is taken literally inside someone’s soul were the trickiest in the film, and Barthes pulls it off with delicacy and grace.

Welcome to the world of filmmaking, Ms. Barthes. I hope you’re with us for a very long time.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.