Cold Souls–Movie Review

by Danielle Ofri
The Lancet

Review of movie “Cold Souls,” starring Paul Giamatti

“How does the medical profession treat the patient with pains of the soul? Traditionally, we offer psychotherapy, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, sometimes a condescending pat on the shoulder. But what if we could extirpate the root-cause pathology? Just as we resect a melanoma, drain an abscess, excise an inflamed gallbladder, why couldn’t the medical profession simply extract the angst-ridden soul?…”

This is precisely what Dr. Flintstein—in the movie “Cold Souls,” written and directed by Sophie Barthes—offers. Paul Giamatti is an actor (incidentally played by the actor Paul Giamatti) whose anxiety and despondency is undermining his lead role in Uncle Vanya. With a simple MRI-like machine, Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) painlessly removes Paul’s soul, which, to the actor’s consternation, turns out to be the size and shape of a chickpea. Paul feels better, lighter, but when his Chekhovian acting turns Chaplinesque, he returns again to Dr. Flinstein.

The good doctor offers a second therapeutic option: Paul could rent a more conducive soul. Paul leafs through the catalogue of available souls and settles on that of a Russian poet. Quick slides of Paul’s credit card and Paul’s body into the respective machines and the actor is the proud owner of a passionate Akhmatovik soul. His performance of Uncle Vanya is riveting.

The Russian poet’s soul, however, comes complete with the poet’s suppressed nightmares. Paul is increasingly plagued by flashbacks to a dreary Soviet orphanage, and soon pines for the familiar warts and Weltschmerz of his old soul.

Meanwhile, we learn of the lively black-market trade flourishing in the poet’s homeland. Legions of impoverished Russians line up at a gritty factory to extract their souls for a handful of rubles. Nina (Dina Korzun) is the mule: a soul is implanted in her body, she flies to New York, walks innocently through customs, then arrives to Dr. Flintstein to make her deposit. Apparently Americans are highly desirous of artistic, romantic souls, so the Nina trolls the halls of the St. Petersburg conservatories for dancers, musicians, and painters strapped for cash.

Nina’s boss, a creepy, Donald Trump-like figure, runs the operation. When his soap-opera-actress trophy wife decides that the soul of a famous American actor would advance her career, he orders Nina to snag the soul of Al Pacino. Failing that, Sean Penn will do. The only actor Nina can find in Dr. Flintstein’s practice, however, is the hapless Paul Giamatti. With misgiving, she filches his soul out of the safe, ferries it within herself on Aeroflot, and then delivers the booty to the tycoon’s wife. When Paul shows up at Flintstein’s office to jettison the tortured poet’s soul for his own neurotic one, he finds that his garbanzo bean is gone.

What follows is part-caper, part-existential meditation, as Nina tries to help Paul recover his soul. Imagine Woody Allen’s Sleeper spliced with Bergman’s Persona. The humor of Could Souls is delightfully deadpan and the characters are superbly acted, but the themes of the movie are probed with intelligence. As a society, we are increasingly drawn to quick fixes, whether it be for the physical imperfections of the body, the balance sheets of our financial institutions, or the political shortcomings of our governments. The medical profession has responded to this demand—witness the rising tide of bariatric surgery in response to our addiction to junk food and plasma screen TVs.

Angst of the soul used to be treated with psychoanalysis—a painstaking and protracted peeling back of our onion-layered neuroses. Even short-term psychotherapy requires a commitment of time and courage. Antidepressant medications, by comparison, are effortless.

Antidepressants are a life-saving invention, and I certainly dispense them as needed to my patients. But I view them the same way I view NSAIDs for a knee injury—a biochemical mechanism to decrease pain so that the real work of therapy can begin. I always encourage my patients with depression to take advantage of the relief offered by medication to engage in the more challenging but ultimately necessary treatment of the underlying issues—whether it be with psychotherapy, marital counseling, support groups or simple introspection and stock-taking. But most shy away from this. It requires too much investment, too much effort, too much interpersonal mess. A pill is all they want.

“Cold Souls” is a thoughtful take on this conundrum. At one point, Paul is racked by guilt and the bleak absurdity of the soul-transfer enterprise. “How did we come to this?” he asks his physician, the anguish palpable in his voice. Dr. Flintstein answers with the prompt confidence of a white-coated clinician. “Progress,” he states.

The movie is beautifully shot by Andrij Parekh—frozen landscapes of St. Petersburg, blustery sea scenes in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, and of course the haunting, dream-like interiors of the souls.  The dry humor and intricate plot make this movie a deliciously imbibed diversion. But the dark and unsettling premise leaves us with plenty to think about afterward, perhaps—as Paul is forced to, in his desolate Russian hotel—with a steaming bowl of chickpea stew.