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.

Cold Souls

Director: Sophie Barthes
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dina Korzun, Emily Watson, David Strathairn, Katheryn Winnick, Lauren Ambrose
Rated: NR
Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
US date: 2009-08-07 (Limited release)
UK date: 2009-11-06 (General release)
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.

-- Sophie Barthes

"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.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.