Like a collision of Charlie Kaufman and Woody Allen, this dark comedy is a surreal gem, astutely examining the issue of identity. And it gives the cast, especially Giamatti, terrific characters to sink their teeth into.
Paul Giamatti (as himself) is a New York actor rehearsing for a stage production of Uncle Vanya. Understandably, the play is depressing him, so he decides to put his soul in storage and lighten up. He finds a facility in the Yellow Pages, and the staff there (Strathairn and Ambrose) help him to desoul his body, although he's a little unnerved when, in a jar, his soul looks like a common chick pea. Meanwhile, Nina (Korzun) is a mule transporting souls between Russia and America, which causes rather serious complications for Paul.
French-born Barthes uses warm comedy and atmospheric suspense to keep us both entertained and unsure where the story will go next. The film is a startling mix of absurd humour and aching emotion, with sharp little details and extremely astute dialog. The matter-of-fact approach to the whole soul-storage business catches us off guard, and we can see why Paul is so desperate to separate himself from his grim stage character.
Giamatti reveals glimpses inside himself while clearly relishing the overall farce. We can see that Paul feels lighter without his soul, and this gives him a chance to subtly explore the nature of relationships and acting through playful scenes with his perplexed wife (the superb Watson) and theatre director (Tucker), both of whom jump to the wrong conclusions. Opposite him, Korzun is also terrific as a woman suffering from the residue of all the souls she has carried.
Barthes cleverly uses camera angles and focal length to give us hints and insight, while she amusingly references films from Being John Malkovich to Sleeper. The similarities with Kaufman and Allen create a familiarity that's perhaps the only flaw here. Otherwise, Barthes has a fiercely original message, and a wonderfully raw tone that also draws on Bunuel and, of course, Chekhov.
As the story takes a series of witty twists and turns, she wins us over with silly touches and thoughtful emotion. And the fact that it's perhaps the heavy weight of being human that defines us.