I wanted to play with this idea that we all think we “know” actors and somehow they belong to us. The problem is, we don’t know them. We think we know how they are as personalities, but really we don’t.
“I’m a madman, you know, so I can say what I wish.” Playing the title character in Uncle Vanya, Paul Giamatti (Paul Giamatti) is feeling turmoil. Of course, he realizes that self-exploration is to be expected in such a demanding role, as he’s played it before. But this time, his soul searching is raising questions. Could it be, he wonders, that in seeking ways to “say what I wish” and in feeling “like I can no longer separate myself from the character,” he is not so much finding Vanya as he is losing himself?
Paul doesn’t quite find an answer to that question in Cold Souls. Equal parts poetic drama, Charlie-Kaufmanny comedy and wholly strange anxiety-fantasy, Sophie Barthes’ movie is premised on the non-answer, that is, the search that cannot be resolved by definition. Paul’s fretting during rehearsal leads his director (Michael Tucker) to suggest he read an article in The New Yorker (always a dangerous place to look for answers). In “Unburdening Made Easy,” Paul discovers the existence of a company that helps you to lose your soul on purpose, to remove it from your physical being and deposit it in a jar and store it.
During his appointment at “Soul Storage,” Paul is impressed by Dr. Flintstein’s (David Strathairn) proposal that he extract that weighty bit of himself. The doctor describes the process in just the sort of circular, self-reflective terms you might expect in such a circular, self-reflective saga: he offers Paul “the possibility to de-soul the body, or disembody the soul.” After all, the doctor submits, “A twisted soul is like a tumor. Better to remove it.” Paul nods, as if this makes sense, phrasing his desires in the negative: “I don’t want to be happy. I just don’t want to suffer.” And so he won’t, or so he thinks.
Problems emerge after the extraction. Paul decides to forgo the possible second step in the procedure — to have a different, “new” soul implanted — and to remain soulless. Of course, he doesn’t feel quite himself, and his colleagues and wife Claire (Emily Watson) notice changes. He sees himself differently: “My feet, my feet. I see my feet,” he says, lying in bed. “I watch them wag. How do I know they’re mine?” Claire touches him and notices he “feels strange.” When he suggests, during a dinner with friends, that one of them “just unplug” her dying mother, Claire is hurt and mystified. “Are you out of your mind? ” she asks on the drive home, “Why would you say that?”
For that matter, why would anyone say anything? How do social proprieties shape behavior or desire, how do relationships depend on trust and expectation? And how does the belief in a soul, in a self that is stable or coherent over time, become a sustainable fiction, specifically a fiction that might be projected and consumed? Paul’s role as an actor per se makes his own soul made available to other Soul Storage clients. So, when he, in a tizzy over feeling soulless, decides to receive another soul after all (that of a “Russian poet”), his own soul becomes available on the inevitable black market in souls.
This part of Paul’s journey is jumpstarted when Nina (Dina Korzun), a soul mule, steals his from Soul Storage and carries it to St. Petersburg, where it ends up inside Sveta (Katheryn Winnick), a would-be actress seeking the soul of “an American actor.” That she’s told that her new soul once belonged to Al Pacino is a good joke, underlining the ways that ideas of selves — genuine, artificial, expressive, performative — are packaged and pitched, consumed as ideals, simultaneously untrue and true.
As Paul embarks on a mission to recover his soul, Cold Souls turns increasingly inward, with surreally images of the “Russian poet’s” recollections or impressions, bleak factories and babies looking lost or alone: he’s not the “madman” he was playing or the poet he imagined he would be, but he is, more and more, himself, a mix of memories and repressions. The stereotype of is the point, as is the stereotype of the “American actor” Sveta thinks she’s had installed. Breaking through these images, however constructed or perceived, is the substance of Paul’s evolving relationship with Claire. As this relationship becomes a slowly spinning center for the film, the answers he seeks, still elusive, are both more banal and more profound.