Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cold Souls: Searching for Soul

Cold Souls, the first feature-length film from writer-director Sophie Barthes, stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Giamatti. Like John Malkovich in Spike Jonze's Being John Malchovich, Giamatti plays himself as a kind of B-level thinking-man's actor who gets involved in some kind of paranormal metaphor for...well, in this case, for the soul.

The premise of Barthes' film has Giamatti rehearsing the part of Uncle Vanya in Chekov's play; if you know Chekov, the play is a sad, soulful Russian lament, and bringing his best to it is taking a toll on the actor. He feels world-weary ("weltschmerz," in German, though Russian would be more appropriate here). When he reads an article in the New Yorker about a doctor who's able to extract a person's soul and put it into cold storage, the idea intrigues him: maybe the process will give him some existential relief, and let him play the part better, as well.

David Strathairn gives a great turn as Dr. Flintstein, who makes the process of soul extraction seem entirely reasonable. He has jars full of extracted souls on his shelves (they come in the shape of small objects: rocks, say, or chewing gum). Flinstein gives Giamatti the full soul-extraction pitch with straight face and full scientific rationale, as if he's talking about bowel cleansing or a gluten free diet.

Giamatti undergoes the process (his soul, it turns out, is the shape of a garbanzo bean). At first excited to be free of his bean-sized angst, he soon discovers that being soul-free is not all its cracked up to be. For one thing, he doesn't have any desire for his wife, any more. For another, his acting has become totally ebullient and misplaced, as if he's doing absurdest schtick in the Catskills. This can't go on, and he soon decides he needs his soul back.

This is where the complications set in, with Russian soul-traffickers stealing Giamatti's soul so that a rich, soap-opera actress can have "the soul of an American actor." All this might seem as goofily hilarious as Jonze's Malcovich if it weren't that Barthes is after something more somber and existential. Giamatti gets the substitute soul of a Russian poet, and we're treated to his memory filing with scenes of large families, enigmatic bald men, and phlegmatic living rooms. Meanwhile, the Russian soul trafficker - who'd stolen his soul to transport it to the would-be actress - decides to help him get it back. It seems that every time she transports another soul, a fragment of it is left behind. So it's not quite clear if she's soulless, or there's some kind of spot on her soul, or she's filled with soul, or some other such phrase.

Which is where Barthes' movie is less clear: just on how we're to understand what all this soul extraction and reinsertion is supposed to symbolize. She plays it less for humor than for some kind of cloudy angst, yet that angst isn't clearly characterized. Giamatti's life remains fairly stock performance, and there's no clues given from the Russian counterparts.

I'm sure this will make some people scratch their heads. Yet the idea of a "soul doctor" who can relieve you of your existential burdens using a device that looks a lot like an MRI machine is surely a ripe one. When the hedge-fund guys come in to evaluate the worth of the souls, you can glimpse just the kind piercing social insight this movie could have. It wants to stay mostly on the level of moody contemplation, with Giamatti doing his best desperate inspired schlub thing. But in this quiet, odd little film made of bits of Russian poetry, sophomore philosophy, and Woody Allen schtick, are true moments of unique inspiration.

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