In Cold Souls, an actor named Paul Giamatti (played by the actor Paul Giamatti) smells different, and his skin feels somehow scaly to his wife, Claire (Emily Watson). She wants to know what's wrong with him, why the man in bed next to her looks and sounds like her husband, but doesn't seem to have his spirit, his essential Paul-ness. Hangdog, he replies, "I rented the soul of a Russian poet."
Not a bad choice, actually, considering it was the spiritually taxing part of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya that pushed Paul to the decision to first extract his soul, then swap it for another model in cold storage. There's some sneaky humor to be had there, in David Strathairn's faintly dim Dr. Flintstein - who not only invented the Kool-Aid, but drank it himself, with relish - and in the glib promise of pharmacology as lifestyle fix-it. Comparisons to Charlie Kaufman's magical memory-erasing machine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are inevitable, and not entirely off-base.
But there's a whole other subplot - a whole other film, really - running concurrently, involving a Russian soul-trafficking racket and a femme fatale mule named Nina (Dina Korzun). The threads trade space somewhat awkwardly, Buñuelist oddballism bumping up against the realist grime and gaudiness of the post-Soviet black-market trade, until the film's sparkier second half finally marries the two.
Even with the light lifts from other sources (writer/director Sophia Barthes, making her debut here, has also cited Federico Fellini and Eugène Ionesco as inspirations), Cold Souls is an original, and Giamatti is masterful, swaddled in a heavy beard and an existential slump. His character eventually goes all the way to St. Petersburg to track down his soul, which has been filched by a vapid Russian soap star, and one senses the actor is game to go even farther.
Barthes' film, however, never quite fulfills the nerviness of its premise. She's created a marvelous construct, but only brushed the surface of its ramifications. It's a window display, when what we really want is to see what goes on behind closed doors.