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Chickpea Soup for the Soul: Cold Souls

21 November 2009 1,057 Views No Comment author: Matt Schneider
"This one arrived in my Christmas stocking last year. Ho ho ho."

"This one arrived in my Christmas stocking last year. Ho ho ho."

An actor playing “himself” in a film?  Not original.  Nor did Charlie Kaufmann think of it first, ubiquitous comparisons to Being John Malkovich notwithstanding.  The most recent issue of Film Comment features a handy list of the 40 most memorable instances of people playing themselves in movies.  Unbelievably, one of my favorite actor-as-himself roles was omitted: Peter Falk in Wings of Desire, in which “Peter Falk” turns out to be a former angel.1  (Truly, not that much of a stretch when you think about it, is it?)  Perhaps the primary reason that Cold Souls has drawn comparisons to Spike Jonze’s film is because they both touch on metaphysics — apparently an area best addressed in the 21st century by celebrity culture.  When a recognizable public figure gets all meta, it’s easy to take metatext as metaphysics.  Secularism hasn’t left us much recourse to traditional spirituality.  Whereas Being John Malkovich recycled the concept of the homunculus to explore role playing and immortality (and, of course, their intersections with art), Cold Souls literally distills these themes to an essence that can be bottled up and stored in New Jersey at a very reasonable price.

Facetiousness aside, a genuinely affecting performance is a kind of miracle.  The moment that you are able to believe (if only in that singular moment) that one person is another, and not just carrying on an elaborately, immaculately conceived charade for dramatic benefit, in that moment, your rational instincts have been overturned.  You are brought in harmony with the irrational, illogical, inconceivable nature of the universe, the logos of God.  Any actor capable of delivering that kind of experience must be a kind of angel.

With this pretext as an undercurrent, the self-conscious opening shot of Paul Giamatti playing to an empty house as he rehearses Uncle Vanya onstage — with such aplomb that he has a mild panic attack — nearly taunts the viewer.2  If nobody witnesses a miracle, how divine could it possibly be?  Being John Malkovich used acting (specifically, Malkovich’s hyper-intense inhabitation of his characters) as a metaphor for the way we construct, adopt, or fulfill self-identity.  Cold Souls openly ruminates on the idea that any performance can be “soulful.”  Put another way: how much does an actor invest of himself in a part?  The whole gambit of a film like Being John Malkovich or A Hard Day’s Night is that the performers have a certain, inimitable mystique that can be harnessed for its own sake — something helps define every role, despite the virtuoso transformation of one person into another.

First and foremost, Cold Souls establishes that Paul Giamatti has finally entrenched himself firmly enough in the pop consciousness that he has a mystique on which to hang a postmodern narrative.  Manohla Dargis led with a wonderful paragraph in her New York Times review of the film that encapsulates Giamatti’s appeal in better words than I can muster: “With his doubting eyes and gently defeated posture, he tends to come across as a man carrying a burden, though one not necessarily or wholly of his making. You can almost see the distress resting heavy and hard on his sloped shoulders, pushing out against his ovoid head, tugging at his lower eyelids and worrying his lips.”  In many of his mid- to late nineties films, this burden was probably elevating gracelessly written supporting roles into something memorable with raw presence and skill.  Giamatti could have become one of the great unsung character actors of this era, and he may yet.  At the present, however, he seems to be straddling the fence of the A list, and he richly deserves to be a star, although the very energy that informs his performances would probably chafe against the roles that would attend mainstream star status.  Cold Souls plays on that anxiety, casting Giamatti as a self-consciously serious thespian who just can’t help being a little funny much of the time.  One of the golden moments in the film is when the receptionist at the soul storage office calls his name.  Giamatti darts a furtive glance at the other clients in the waiting room, potentially mortified that he — an actor of stage and screen! — could be recognized in such a compromising place.  Part of the joke is that anybody might feel ill at ease in that situation; Giamatti plays it much like any man might if he were called by name in the waiting room of a sperm bank.  The other part of the joke is that it’s incredibly unlikely that anyone in the room would even know who “Paul Giamatti” is.  His estimation of his own renown is repeatedly punctured throughout the film… a film that banks on Paul Giamatti being a known persona.

Buttressing Giamatti is another great character actor perpetually on the cusp of stardom: David Strathairn.  Strathairn had his own brush with popular success in 2005 as Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck..  Though he’s been in and around the big time for years, both as leading man (often in John Sayles films) and ensemble player (in everything from the underrated conspiracy yarn Sneakers to the putrid legal thriller Fracture), but he seems instinctively to grasp exactly what will serve a movie best, and if it’s him in a minor role, he’ll take the check and make with the acting.  Cold Souls casts him as Dr. Flintstein,3 the impishly deadpan quack in charge of New York’s only soul extraction and storage clinic.  Rather than turn Dr. Flintstein into a huckster, Strathairn’s pseudo-medical practitioner is a survivor of the counterculture, one of those on the fringe who never gave up hope of the miracle cure, the path that science cuts to immortality, or at least the bridge that scientific progress builds toward an expanded consciousness.4  Cavalierly disclosing that he really has no idea how the soul extraction works, he proceeds to spin his spiel of the benefits of soullessness — or, if a client prefers, carrying another soul.  Perhaps one of the imports from Russia (where soul trafficking is still unregulated).  Giamatti’s incredulity collides with Strathairn’s ingenuousness and spasmodically produces gleaming nuggets of modestly absurd comic gold.

Paralleling Giamatti’s negotiation with the travails of soul removal is a Russian soul mule named Nina, who is beginning to suffer the side effects of accruing too many soul fragments on her travel between St. Petersburg and New York.  When we first meet Nina, she’s bluffing her way past a customs official (as she’s presumably done many times before) in a wig.  Each soul, however, seeps into her personality.  A Russian “poet” (actually a hardworking, impoverished mother of a pack of kids) unexpectedly imbues Nina with empathy, so when she absconds back to Russian with Giamatti’s soul, she is moved to seek him out and help him get it back.

Nina is played by Dina Korzun, a relative unknown in the United States.5  As an unfamiliar face (soul), I suspect that the average viewer is forced to take her performance at face value, whereas Giamatti and Strathairn are free to tweak their established personas as part of the film’s texture.6  Korzun clothes herself in world-weariness as naturally as Giamatti bears his nervous burden.  Apart from the obvious connection between Giamatti performing a Russian play and his soul being appropriated by Russians (and the fact that when he performs Vanya, he does so with the Russian poet’s soul inside of him), there’s a little more at work with the simpatico relationship Giamatti eventually develops with Nina.  As a professional ferryman of souls, Dina’s job is literally to bring “soulfulness” to strangers by allowing the essence of other people to take possession of her.  Isn’t that an actor’s job?  The weight of all those souls eventually becomes as much a burden to Nina as Vanya was to Giamatti.  The final shot of the film reminded me of the metaphysics of The Double Life of Veronique.  Rather than the whole world being one soul (as Terrence Malick would have it) or each soul having its doppleganger, or sharing its essence with two people (as Krzyzstof Kieslowski or many, many very derivative, unimaginative genre filmmakers would have it), Cold Souls writer/director Sophie Barthes suggests that soulfulness is something of which virtually anyone is capable, but only a select few are sensitive enough to comprehend its profundity.

Much like the actor’s art, souls are traded as commodities.  The extrapolation of the basic premise (souls extraction and swapping) invokes the ghost of Philip K. Dick with its humorous, paranoid conception of the world as a spiritual stock exchange.  Not as gonzo as much of his more ambitious stories, the deadpan mundanity of the sci-fi premise has the flavor of some of Dick’s short stories, but certainly the seriously playful metaphysical metatextuality of his VALIS trilogy (especially that first novel, in which “Phil” and his double cope with the implications of divine extraterrestrial revelation).7  The production team8 and cinematographer Andrij Parekh conspire to drape the world in drabness, with muted colors and depth of field, giving the film a very flat, lacunose tone, without any actual sparsity or obvious gaps in narrative or spatial continuity.  It’s simply an empty, dull world, and these people fill it with their art and the connections they form with each other — either through that art, or through unlikely encounters.  There aren’t many “relationships” in Cold Souls, but those that exist are warm, mercifully dedicated, given the propensity of films these days to dramatize infidelity and selfishness as endemic to modern life.  True, those traits are absolutely a part of this film’s world.  If unbridled capitalism isn’t getting in the way of human connection, it’s Uncle Sam, who finally steps in to confiscate the extracted souls for its own shadowy purposes under the aegis of Homeland Security.  (I’m sure Dick would’ve approved of that last-minute touch.)  Still, these connections persist: the human soul endures.

As low-key as Cold Souls is pitched, its debts to Dick (and, I’m sure, surrealist authors with whom I’m unfamiliar), his Cold War paranoia (inverted); its postmodern metaphysics may seem unremarkable.9 This is part of the film’s charm.  Its aesthetic  unremarkableness is key to its transcendent affirmation.  Consider again the figure of Peter Falk in Berlin, prior to the fall of the wall.  Physically, he is consummately average.  His ability to stretch that physicality to match the demands of whimsy or deadly serious domestic combat, and the range of inflections he could bring were all part of his mystique.  For Wim Wenders to cast him as an itinerant angel (endlessly sketching, idle hands being the devil’s workshop and whatnot) was an inspired bit of serendipity.  It just sort of happened, and as Wenders said, “He had to be some extremely famous figure, and you would gradually realize he was a former angel.”  Somehow, this average figure became one of the most iconic in Western pop culture.  That doesn’t just happen.  That is due partly to marketing, and an actor’s (or agent’s) nose for great, resonant parts.  Part of it, though, is the divine spark — whatever it is that is referred to as “it.”  Giamatti, like Falk, sort of sneaks up on you.  Before you know it, you’ve been given a glimpse of something true.  Whatever fictions Cold Souls builds into the life of Paul Giamatti, its mundanity, the heart of its drama, is atypically underplayed, much like the conversation between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre.  If a wide-ranging dinner conversation (also having much to do with faith, acting, life, the universe, and everything) can be cinematic without being grandiose, postmodern without being presumptuous, I think it’s perfectly valid to acknowledge that an underrated American actor with a chickpea soul can be the subject of a metaphysical comedy that doesn’t have to be sui generis to be truthful, entertaining, and sanguine in its rendering of the fantastic ordinary.

Edited by Ellen Lawrence.


  1. They also left out Michael Jordan (Space Jam), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Last Action Hero), Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (My Dinner with Andre), and David Bowie (Labyrinth).
  2. I also wonder if the scenes of rehearsing Vanya to an empty theater are in any way related to Gregory’s own infamous production that was eventually filmed by Louis Malle.
  3. His first name could only be Frederic.
  4. In short, he seems ripped from the pages of R.A. Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger.
  5. Her most high profile role was probably in Ira Sachs’s Rip Torn movie, Forty Shades of Blue.
  6. Emily Watson, cast as Giamatti’s wife, is another welcome, familiar face.  Though given a fairly small part, Watson fills it up as is her wont.  The scene in which Giamatti confesses that he has another person’s soul is sublime, mostly as a result of her reaction shots.
  7. I, for one, would love to see Barthes adapt VALIS with Giamatti as Dick.
  8. Including production designer Beth Mickle (Half Nelson, Sugar), art director Michael Ahern (Taxi to the Dark Side), and costume designer Erin Benach (Half Nelson, Sugar). The three have already overlapped professionally.
  9. In the Village Voice, Anthony Kaufman’s interview with Barthes reveals Gogol, Ionesco, Breton, and Bunuel as among her influences.  She also wrote the part with Woody Allen in mind.  His presence would have changed the whole dynamic of the film, of course, but it’s worth acknowledging that the plot does bear similarities to some of his earlier stage plays.  The whole undercurrent of “America” being soulless is a lot of stuff and nonsense — a film this self-consciously European couldn’t address a specifically American consciousness any more than Lars Von Trier’s U.S.A trilogy.  For a French-born citizen of the world like Barthes to claim to have a bead on the U.S. is typically unfortunate presumption.  However, this works in the film’s favor: its very unrootedness feeds into the dreamlike drift of the story.  If she lost her moorings as a political commentator, it could only mirror the plight of a professional pretender who has also lost his moorings.

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