Searching the soul in (sur)reality

2009_cold_souls_001-1“The soul has its principal seat in the small gland located in the middle of the brain” – and so the film Cold Souls ironically expands from Descartes’ scientific assertion into director Sophie Barthes’ own meditation on the soul.

Showing through tomorrow evening at Images, Cold Souls details the unregulated industry of soul extraction and trafficking via Paul Giamatti’s struggles in an off-Broadway production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. As the role of Vanya proves too emotionally taxing, Giamatti (played by himself) learns of Soul Storage – a lab in Roosevelt Island, N.Y. that performs soul extraction and temporary suspension on ice. Despite the medical formalities of such a procedure, the side effects are uncertain because of the particularity of each soul. Nonetheless, the overwhelmed actor elects for the procedure, hoping it will assuage the anxiety and suffering that the daunting task of portraying Vanya has imposed on his personal life.

Despite temporary alleviation from the unbearable weight of his own soul, the now soulless actor finds himself numb to all human suffering – individual and collective. As he bumbles his way through rehearsals and normal social interactions, his insensitivity and awkwardness transparently suggest that darkness and gravity are necessary components of a complete being. After recognizing the necessity of his own soul and trying to retrieve it from storage, Paul finds that his soul has been “accidentally” shipped to the company’s warehouse in Russia. In search for his self, Giamatti contacts a Russian soul mule and travels to St. Petersburg with the dualistic hopes of reconnecting mind and body.

By having Paul Giamatti play himself, the film teases our sense of (sur)reality and the notion of a celebrity as having an identity which seems to reside in the public domain. The audience’s knowledge of Paul Giamatti as an actor becomes an internal mechanism and motif through the onscreen identification of “Paul Giamatti” by other characters.

While Barthes’ objectification of metaphysical essence displayed in Cold Souls is conceptually evocative of Charlie Kaufman’s cinematic canon (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine), the French-born filmmaker has been eager to note that her influences are of a more traditional, European origin (i.e. Luis Bunuel, Karl Jung, Theater of the Absurd). Moreover, her creative ownership as both writer and director of Souls has allowed a more comprehensive vision, as a calculated aesthetic atmosphere unifies actor and action within the film’s cloudy narrative passage through surreality.

The specific visual palette was carefully crafted by Barthes and cinematographer Andrij Parekh (director of photography of Half Nelson, The Treatment) to create a cloudy world through strictly muted, wintry tones in which primary colors are entirely absent. The intentional haze of Cold Souls captures the melancholic effect of winter, thereby suggesting the volatility of the soul as being a seasonal, whimsical thing. Such visual consistency bolsters the film’s ethereal sensibility by imbuing a cloudy, dreamlike aesthetic foundation to support the hazy and seemingly uncertain narrative movement. The urgency and desperation of Giamatti’s self-portrayal is beautifully contrasted with the reticence that characterizes his hopelessly aimless wanderings through St. Petersburg in search for his soul.

Despite cultivating a fine balance between dark, neurotic screwball and surrealist/sci-fi indie drama, the film is inhibited by a pervading emotional transparence throughout the narrative. Driven through a monist sensibility, Paul’s quest to retrieve his lost soul loses the steam of existential playfulness and sense of humor in the latter half of the film. By isolating Giamatti in the haze of soullessness, the narrative’s insularity is highlighted through the incapacity for empathy here shared by protagonist and audience.

Given Barthes’ refusal to impose her own definition of soulfulness/soullessness, Cold Souls lacks the pretension one might expect from a film with such a deliberate philosophical scope. Perhaps it is Barthes’ own humility as a first-time writer-director that restrains the film from aspirations of metaphysical grandeur, and gradually replaces levity with a protective self-consciousness as we wander alongside our tragic hero from New York to Russia. Nonetheless, it’s a remarkable and ambitious film that manages to be insightful and entertaining without taking itself too seriously.