How fitting that the fictional ''Paul Giamatti'' played by the real Paul Giamatti in Cold Souls is rehearsing Chekhov's Uncle Vanya when he decides his soul is too heavy to bear! He's the perfect customer for a shady outfit that promises relief from unbearable being through the neat extraction and storage of one's pesky, heavy essence. Writer-director Sophie Barthes' darkly funny, twisty-cool existential tragicomedy, loaded with smart notions and filmed like a surrealist dream, really takes off post-procedure, after ''Paul'' deposits his excised soul (it looks like a chickpea) in the lab's vault. Bad luck: He discovers that soullessness leads to lousy acting. On a mission to restore himself to himself, he stumbles into a fantastical world of Russian soul trafficking. Dina Korzun (Forty Shades of Blue) is haunting as a human mule. David Strathairn makes a silky lab head.
The inventiveness of Barthes' story is matched by a sense of visual fluidity that's especially striking in a first feature. Just as important, while luxuriating in Chekhovian hand-wringing, Barthes knows a good joke. Over in Russia, a pampered TV soap actress shops a soul catalog, hoping to borrow the essence of Al Pacino. Hey, a soul can dream, right? A–