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Cold Souls

by Yoda
posted on 4/02/10
To describe Cold Souls as "high concept" would be an understatement. Concepts don't get much higher than this, and following suit might help you enjoy it. If Charlie Kaufman were a character in Pineapple Express and loved Tolstoy, this is the kind of thing he might dream up.

Paul Giamatti plays a version of himself...literally. He's not playing a character similar to him, he's playing Paul Giamatti, though one would hope a more melancholy version of whoever he really is. His character (if that's the right word) is starring in a production of "Uncle Vanya," a famous Russian play. It's also fairly depressing. But I repeat myself.

Giamatti's having trouble nailing down his performance and stumbles across a service that promises to extract your soul and store it indefinitely, thereby relieving you of any abstract spiritual burdens you might be carrying. He has the procedure done and is alarmed to find out that his soul resembles a chickpea, though I struggle to produce a vegetable he would have found much less alarming.

Subtle side effects begin to show up. His performance on stage suddenly lacks empathy. His wife feels that something is wrong. Everyone seems to understand that something is missing from him; eventually, he decides he needs his soul back.

That's a problem, because as secure as the sterile storage facility appears to be, Giamatti's soul has been stolen. When he returns to claim it he is offered a loaner; he can choose any of the anonymously donated souls they have until it's found. He settles on a Russian poet, which has the side effect of making his performance in "Uncle Vanya" deeply heartfelt because his heart has now, in fact, felt it. This works for a time, but produces strange visions and merely substitutes someone else's burdens for his own. A bit of sleuthing reveals that his soul is in Russia, and he must travel there to retrieve it.

There are a few wrinkles in the soul extraction procedure that have serious implications. Most notable is that they cannot extract the entire soul, and that fragments of each soul stored inside someone are left behind. This is particularly consequential for Nina (Dina Korzun), who is a soul "mule," importing souls from Russia by carrying them inside herself. The fragments of each soul she's carried begin to pile up, which raises the question as to whether or not there's still room for her own.

Possible metaphors abound. Is Cold Souls about technology slowly suppressing and extracting all the things that make us human? Is it an allegory for the nature of acting itself and how each performance requires someone to let another soul inhabit them for a time? Possibly both; maybe neither. Its message, if it has one, is hiding in plain sight among countless alternatives.

The personal and destructive nature of the commodity is emphasized in numerous ways. Nina is not unlike a prostitute, and one shot in particular makes the comparison clear. People line up at a dispensary in Russia to either pawn their souls, or make a futile attempt to buy them back. Both provoke thoughts of classic Russian literature.

The premise is fascinating, but largely unexplored. As much as we may want the mechanics and reaction of the world at large to this service to be expounded on, however, it's probably wise that they aren't.

This is one of those films that is more interesting to discuss than it is to watch. The implications of a world where souls have been isolated and can be removed are far-reaching, and by ignoring most of them outright Cold Souls invites us to speculate. Whether or not this is a stroke of genius or a missed opportunity will depend on your perspective, though it's worth noting that if one were to substitute Giamatti's soul for anything of sentimental value to him, the film wouldn't be much different.

There is a deeply poignant moment near the film's end where Giamatti chooses (after refusing the first time) to actually see the contents of his soul. It is different than he expected. Is his soul either beautiful or ugly in an objective sense, or is it inherently beautiful simply because it encompasses an entire human being? Whatever else it is, it is undeniably him. I am reminded of the words often (though mistakenly) attributed to famous Christian author C.S. Lewis:

"You don't have a Soul, you are a Soul. You have a body."