Is your soul weighing you down?

Reading The New Yorker, Paul Giamatti (playing a version of himself) runs across an aptly timed article thus subtitled. He's saddled with exactly that weight—stuck, artistically and emotionally, trying to shrug off his own cares, frustrations, and hang-ups in order to portray Uncle Vanya onstage in Chekhov's masterpiece. "I have a pain in my chest like somebody put my heart in a vice and just tightened it," he groans, his face twisted in frustration.

The article explains that New Yorkers, bogged down by the weight of their souls, have started to extract and store them at a high-tech facility on Roosevelt Island. Skeptical but at the end of his rope, with opening night merely days away, Paul takes the trolley out to the facility to see what can be done.

Paul Giamatti as himself

Paul Giamatti as himself

Dr. Flintstein (David Straitharn) reassures him that many celebrities and professionals have stored their souls there and been much happier—but once the extraction procedure is over, Paul's not so sure he likes the results. He goes back to have his soul re-implanted. But what he doesn't know is that there's a whole underground soul-trafficking industry, and getting his soul back may not be as easy as he'd like.

Written and directed by Sophie Barthes, Cold Souls is a dead ringer for a Charlie Kaufman film—surreal, strange, and quirky, like a waking dream, or maybe nightmare. Its subject matter even has a lot in common with Kaufman's—what if we could technologically eradicate that which weighs us down? What would it be like to inhabit someone else's soul? And what do we do with our regrets?

So, if you don't like Kaufman's films, you won't like this one, either—and maybe even if you did. This is from a less experienced writer and director, and is slightly less skillfully constructed, and so it can be hard to watch. It's slow. The narrative drags in places. Barthes is bent on evoking the characters' experiences through the cinematography, and while that occasionally works onscreen (as in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), here it sometimes comes off gimmicky.

David Strathairn as Doctor Flintstein

David Strathairn as Doctor Flintstein

But Cold Souls is still strangely engaging. The plight that Paul finds himself in is common to most people, especially when we are experiencing mental or spiritual pain. How do we get "out of our heads" and focus on what's at hand? And is it even good to do this?

It's only natural that Barthes chooses New Yorkers and Russians to be extracting and swapping souls. (And it's no coincidence that both places are pretty cold for most of the year.) These Russians, besides making for pretty good mobsters onscreen, are still emerging from decades of what some might term a soulless existence, marked by oppression and rigid determinism.

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New Yorkers, on the other hand, live in the shadow of two missing towers on the skyline and the knowledge that it could easily happen again—enough to weigh down anyone's soul. It's not that small catastrophes don't happen every day in every small town in America; it's just that the scale is multiplied, and fresh in the collective memory.

Emily Watson as Claire

Emily Watson as Claire

And so the film raises a mostly unanswerable question: What, exactly, is the soul? Where is it? What does it do? Are the soul and the spirit synonymous? How is it connected to the mind, the body, and the personality? When a society is dealing with collective sadness, what do we do? Theologians and church people don't seem to have a much better grasp on the question than anyone else, and so we turn to upbeat music, feel-good movies, and Chicken Soup for the Soul to get some relief.

Cold Souls, for the most part, avoids addressing the question entirely. Barthes's version of the soul is the seat of passion, desire, and emotion; it is separate from thought, personality, rationality, and intelligence, those things that we heirs of the Enlightenment so cherish.

But in reality, the attributes credited to the soul in this film can be largely eradicated or muffled, whether through prescription drugs or self-medication—alcoholism, food binging, mindless media consumption, sleep, shopping, and other addictions. Materialism runs rampant, and we can barely believe that we even have souls unless we satiate them with things. So, then, by Barthes's definition, can we actually eradicate the soul? Can we remove that weight from ourselves? And, if so, does "everything make so much more sense," as Dr. Flintstein declares?

Doctor and patient, doing some soul searching

Doctor and patient, doing some soul searching

Cold Souls comes at pivotal time. We've barely just left the bloodiest century in human history, and that kind of tragedy does not weigh lightly. At the same time, we are experiencing a collapse of many of the financial and social structures that we've long used to sate or simply ignore our souls. While Cold Souls doesn't answer any of the questions it raises, it does provide a thought-provoking narrative framework from which to begin.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Have you ever felt burdened by the weight of your soul, like Paul in the movie? What did you do about it?

  2. What do you think about the movie's implications for the materialism of our society? What have you tried to sate your soul with? How did that work out?

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  1. What is the difference between the soul and the spirit?

  2. In the Bible, the word used for "soul" is often the same as the word for "breath." God breathed into Adam and he became human (Genesis 2:7).  Do you think the soul is simply the seat of the emotions and passions? Or is the soul what makes us human?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Cold Souls is rated PG-13 for nudity and brief strong language. There is some brief female nudity, and the language includes some uses of the f-word. There's also some frank but not graphic discussion of sexual relations between a married couple. Additionally, the film's surrealism can be a little disturbing, particularly a dream sequence.

Cold Souls
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for nudity and brief strong language)
Directed By
Sophie Barthes
Run Time
1 hour 41 minutes
Paul Giamatti, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun
Theatre Release
May 05, 2010 by Samuel Goldwyn Pictures
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