Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews

Paul Giamatti in Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls




picture - Cold SoulsFilm Review

by William Gooch

published August 14, 2009


Cold Souls

rated PG-13

now playing in select theaters


Religious scholars, clergy and the like have always spoke to the futility of questing after worldly possessions at the expense of the soul. In the surreal comedy Cold Souls, director/writer Sophie Barthes weaves an original tale that speaks to a world where souls are sold and traded as a commodity at the human cost to cultural identity, empathy and passion. Unlike the spiritual forebodings of moral decline in pursuit of seasonal pleasures and dalliances, these modern-day consumers look to numb the brain’s pleasure centers by extracting the soul, opening pathways to a life unencumbered by emotion, community and responsibility. Or in the words Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), “When you get rid of the soul, everything makes so much sense.”


Paul Giamatti portrays himself, a New York stage actor who agonizes over his emotional attachment to the title character in Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. (In the play, Ivan Petrovitch Voynitsky (Uncle Vanya) laments over his wasted life and how, if circumstances had presented themselves differently, he could have been a second Dostoevsky or Schopenhauer.) As Uncle Vanya, Giamatti takes all the angst and resentfulness of the character home with him, making him sullen and almost impossible to live with, as well as rendering him a depressed lump of unmoldable clay during rehearsal. After reading a New Yorker magazine article about soul extraction, Giamatti undergoes a highly advanced treatment to have his soul removed with the hopes that this extraction will loosen the grip Uncle Vanya has over his life. The treatment, though successful, leaves Giamatti unable to portray Uncle Vanya with any depth or emotional relevancy. With the original intention to reinstate his soul after the run of the play, Giamatti instead decides to implement his lackluster performance with the soul of an unknown Russian poet. Although this new soul facilitates a layered and nuance portrayal, Giamatti is haunted by the sense memories of the poet. Later learning that his own soul has been confiscated, Giamatti is whisked on a trail of espionage and soul trafficking in Russia.


Sophie Barthes infuses Cold Souls with dry wit and stock characters that, if left to stand on their own merit, would have produced a film that fails to provide any insight into the human need to be connected to community and its own humanity. However, Barthes’ excellent script elevates Cold Souls from a labored Jungian diatribe of man’s refusal to encompass his total self to a thought-provoking, humorous, surreal commentary on the commoditization of every possible thing, even one’s soul. All this is set against the backdrop of New York City, the world capital of commerce, and Moscow, a city still struggling with the capitalist model.


Cold Souls gives audiences a look at the city that New York residents actually live in. This is the NYC that is more than upscale neighborhoods, fashionista indulgences, and tourists’ haunts. This is the city of the working actor. And Moscow is presented as a cold, industrialized city full of intrigue and corrupt capitalism.


picture - Cold SoulsPaul Giamatti, in playing himself, conjures up images of the conflicted New York stage actor who plays a tug-of-war battle with himself when portraying rich, three-dimensional characters. This is an image of the New York actor we rarely see on screen nowadays, and harkens back to the verbose, conflicted actor archetypes like Woody Allen, Wallace Shawn and Austin Pendleton. Giamatti injects himself into this pantheon of conflicted types and expands that genre into the 21st century. All while playing himself, but extending beyond the confines of what audiences expect from a glib, erudite Giamatti character.  As Dr. Flintstein, the mastermind behind soul extraction, David Strathairn delivers an eerily, convincing performance. Flintstein truly believes that soul extraction and rental is “the progress and triumph of the mind.”


Although Cold Souls is a cerebral manipulation of the Jungian anima/animus theory, existentialism and sci-fi melodrama, Barthes’ combined mix of dry wit, satire and phantasmagorical imagery—the extracted soul as the image and shape of a chickpea—gives an interesting look into American consumerism, technological frontiers, and man’s eternal quest for wholeness.


williamgooch @


read the roundtable discussion with Paul Giamatti and Sophie Barthes




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