Souls on Ice


August 24, 2009

We are happy to post this review of Cold Souls by guest contributor Anthony Sacramone.

cold-souls In Gogol’s Dead Souls, an enterprising con artist named Chichikov buys up the “souls” (really, merely the names) of dead Russian serfs who would otherwise represent a tax burden to landowners. In so doing, the artful deadbeat hopes one day to attain a loan against these taxable souls and retire to the wealth and idleness to which he aspires. In this comic masterpiece, Gogol paints a picture of a Russia corrupted by inverted values and a Quixotic quest for a nonexistent “good life.” Having abandoned the simplicity and stability represented by peasant life, Russians were slowly losing that which is worth infinitely more than the whole world.

The author intended in sequels to present a “solution” to the ridiculous predicament that his characters found themselves in, a blueprint for resurrection, not only of Chichikov’s deadened soul but that of his nation as well. (As Vladimir Nabokov observed, Gogol “thoroughly plann[ed] his works after he had written them.”) But Gogol fell into what is referred to in the literature as a “religious mania,” becoming convinced his work was blasphemous and that his soul was imperiled. As an act of penance, he burned the as-yet unfinished second book of Dead Souls (only fragments of which survived) and died shortly thereafter, a victim of a severe penitential fast. What a loss for Chichikov, for Russia, and for us!

In the spirit of such Slavic absurdity, we now have Cold Souls, a new film by writer-director Sophie Barthes, starring Paul Giamatti as…Paul Giamatti. (Any resemblance to Being John Malkovich is somewhat coincidental.) Here Giamatti, famous for roles ranging from comic-book writer Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) to President John Adams, is preparing to play the titular character in Chekhov’s comedy Uncle Vanya. (That only Chekhov found the play funny is another story.)

But Vanya, the 47-year-old kvetch who bemoans the waste that is his life, is giving Giamatti an acute case of agita. Vanya’s regrets apparently, and only apparently, mirror an inner turmoil that Giamatti is experiencing as a vice-like pressure in his chest. One night, unable to sleep, the actor reads a New Yorker article about some outfit on Roosevelt Island* that will extract and freeze your soul, ostensibly ridding you of its fly-strip capacity to cling to every ambivalence, conflict, and regret. Giamatti decides to give it a shot, hoping not so much for happiness but merely an end to his “suffering” (the exact nature of which is never made clear). He is soon horrified to learn that his soul, encased in a glass tube and ready for cold storage, bears a striking resemblance to a chickpea.

As it turns out, a soulless Giamatti is no more functional than an ensouled one. When Dr. Flintstein, the head of this soul-extracting start-up, played with an earnest jackanapery by David Straithairn, asks Giamatti, “Have you had a single dark thought?” the reply is no. Giamatti has certainly experienced no joy—but neither has he been afflicted with bad feeling. In fact, he feels . . . nothing. But for an actor, the inability to emote definitely limits the range of roles one can take. Once you’ve played Raymond in a remake of Rain Man, what’s left? (Well, there’s always Pinter . . .)

Thank goodness for the Russians—or, rather, the Russian black market, which traffics in souls. (This is an industry, you see, that is still relatively unregulated.) Human “mules” transport these souls to Dr. Flintstein in America, just as their Central American counterparts transport cocaine—inside the body. Giamatti decides to try on the soul of an anonymous Russian poet, hoping to imbue his stagecraft with a certain lyrical . . . something. The result is not poetry but ham-fisted mugging that resembles Al Pacino at his latter-day worst.

Now desperate, Giamatti demands his soul back. It may not be much, but at least it’s his, riddled with the stains of his own dark memories, not someone else’s. But things are not so simple. A Russian “businessman,” annoyed at the imbalance of soul trade between the U.S. and Russia, promises his wife, a spoiled soap-opera actress, the soul of a famous American actor—specifically, that of—you got it—Al Pacino. Unfortunately, Nina, an overworked Russian mule, can obtain only Giamatti’s soul, which she “borrows” without telling anyone.

When our hero discovers that he has to travel to Russia to get back his own essential self—and from a bratty gangster’s wife to boot, one who thinks she’s embodying the soul of Michael Corleone, Frank Serpico, and Tony Montana—well, wackiness ensues.

Alas, Cold Souls’s parts are greater than its whole, and sounds funnier than it is. It fails to cohere in part because the central conceit—Paul Giamatti playing Paul Giamatti—serves no great purpose. After all, Giamatti, however ill at ease and sad-sackish he may appear, is a successful and respected actor. If we are to believe that he is nevertheless experiencing a soul-shifting crisis, a deep-seated desire to, as Vanya says, “live the rest of his life in a different way,” those scenes must have been left on the cutting-room floor or on Barthes’ laptop.

What’s actually on the screen, however, is the image of an accomplished artist who has perhaps made one poor career choice and may be in need of a vacation. His wife, played by Emily Watson (Gosford Park), is no help either. Upon returning home from a business trip, she realizes that something, yes, is different about Giamatti: there is a certain scaliness of the skin (an observation that proves a potent anaphrodisiac) and an unfamiliar body odor. But that’s about it. Watson’s considerable gifts are wasted inhabiting a character that reveals nothing of the couple’s life together and proves little more than a cipher. For all we know, she may have already paid the good Dr. Flintstein a visit herself.

And while the film makes clear that we live in a world in which anything and everything is a commodity (something with which Gogol would have agreed), it offers no alternative vision, no picture of what an integrated and healthy soul would be. In New York, the “peasants” have all moved to the suburbs and are now invisible; and in Moscow, they’re all crowded into gray assembly lines, looking more dead than alive to begin with.

And what, exactly, is the soul again? The filmmakers provide an epigraph from Descartes, who located the soul somewhere in the brain. But thereafter, Barthes & Co. assume we know what they mean by the soul—you know, that certain je ne sais quoi that only a trite French expression expressing absolutely nothing can express. Even with 95 percent of the soul extracted (5 percent must be retained for the body to be animate, apparently), people seem able to function, if in a somewhat listless manner. Some of the soulless come to understand that they have made a terrible mistake in deleting their soul as if it were some legacy software from the days of Windows 98. But if theologians are correct in asserting that the soul is the seat of the reasoning self, how can anyone come to such an “understanding” without the equipment to do so? (But should anyone be surprised that reason is replaced by feeling as the core of the self? After all, what is truth but that which makes us feel good about ourselves?)

One could say that niggling over refined definitions is too much to ask of a bagatelle such as this, that to probe too deeply into the relationship of body/soul/spirit would be to burden a mere entertainment with the weight of a philosopher’s stone. Then let’s just say it would have made for a more engaging and effective satire if we had been introduced not to Giamatti the Oscar-nominated actor but to Giamatti the Everyman—a Prisoner of Second Avenue at the end of his rope, plagued by anxiety, resentment, and dissatisfaction, and whose life and relationships we are actually privy to. What we needed was a working set up, and someone we could perhaps identify with—or at least identify period. That such a person would go to absurd lengths to rid himself of his nagging self so as to be “free,” only to learn that, in the words of the fabulous Buckaroo Banzai (who made his own film debut 25 years ago this month), no matter where you go, there you are, would have proved an effective cautionary tale, a mini dystopia, not merely a punch line.

When Giamatti is finally forced to stare into his chickpea of a soul, something he had been avoiding as one avoids a mirror upon waking, he appears more confounded than enlightened. As St. Paul reminds us throughout his epistles, we are pretty poor judges of ourselves. With that, Cold Souls would agree. The film hints—and just barely hints—that only a true soul mate, in this case Nina, the mule who transported Giamatti’s soul to Russia and still bears a flickering remnant, can help the actor find wholeness, or some semblance of self-understanding. That even she might prove a poor substitute for the soul’s Creator is most definitely too much to ask of Barthes’ little indie comedy.

If you work hard at this film, you might leave with the vague impression that true self-knowledge comes only from an objectivity that is impossible to attain from within. Unfortunately for Cold Souls, the critical objectivity that could perhaps have saved this potentially edifying story comes only when nothing more can be done to redeem it. As with poor Vanya, and Book Two of Dead Souls confined to the flames, what can one say but Ach! What a waste!

* For non–New Yorkers, Roosevelt Island is a strip of over-edificed granite that sits in the East River, and therefore is neither Manhattan nor Queens proper. It is an often forgotten netherworld.