With a subtle touch writer/director Sophie Barthes offers a brilliantly conceived film on the relationship between the body and the soul. This nettlesome little issue has a long pedigree, going back to Plato, at least, and probably back much further. What exactly is the soul? What does it do? and does it really exists? These are questions being hashed out among theologians, scientists, and now filmmakers.
In “The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul” (2007), Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary make a strong case for the nonmaterial origin of religious experience. In other words, religious experience cannot be reduced to the firing of electrons or the genetic sequence. God, according to Beauregard, acts directly with the brain. The immaterial deity directly impinges upon our grey matter. To many scientists this is heresy of the first order.
Likewise, a few years ago, two scientists argued that scripture and psychology actually agree that the human person, as a whole, consists of an immaterial part. The existence of the something like a soul—immaterial, transcendent, etc–has perplexed humanity for a while now. Even Christians can’t seem to agree when pushed on the question. The question posed by Nancey Murphy’s “Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?” suggests one of the lines of debate regarding the Christian concept of the soul. For a few centuries, Christians have been trying to put their proverbial finger on the soul, which by many definitions is immaterial and, therefore, impervious to touch. Since it can’t be touched, Enlightenment scientists dismissed talk of the immaterial soul as a lingering superstition. Now scientists, especially in the field of neuroscience, are eager to find explanations for what had previously been ascribed to the soul, but unlike their reductionistic predecessors, they are more open to the possibility of the soul—an immaterial cause.
With her first feature-length film, Sophie Barthes, offers a meditation on the soul with her dark and dead pan Cold Souls. The film stars Paul Giamatti as himself—sort of. Given the film’s outrageous premise, the main character—named Paul Giamatti—cannot be seen as a wholly autobiographical portrayal of the real Giamatti. After reading an article in the New Yorker, Giamatti opts to have his soul removed from his body. The attending physician, played with unflinching deadpan by David Straithairn, promises that the painless procedure will relieve the struggling actor of his burdensome soul, but the details are sketchy. Dr. Flintstein, whose name evokes a combination of Dr. Frankenstein and Fred Flintstone, can only be sure of one thing–the procedure works. Aside from that, Flintstein does not know much else. Early in the film, Giamatti has his soul removed and spends the rest of the film dealing with the consequences.
As a film, the experience was deeply satisfying. Giamatti, Straithairn and Emily Watson (in the role of Giamatti’s loving but incredulous wife) each give outstanding performances. Watson’s reaction to the news of her husband’s soullessness is moving and hilarious at the same time. Giamatti gets to show off his acting chops during the bits of Uncle Vanya that we see his character rehearsing throughout the film. As noted in other reviews, the beautiful cinematography art-housey without being annoying.
As a meditation on the soul, or in other words, as theology, the film does not quite satisfy. To be sure there are some wonderful insights about the human condition and its more transcendent/metaphysical elements. Chief among those insights is the exploration of what happens when technology races ahead of comprehensive understanding of its use. For instance, Flintstein can take out your soul with the dispatch of a dermatologist popping a zit, but he does not have a clue—by his own admission—what the soul does or what the body will do without it. He has a machine that can do it, so why not.
In its own right, the soul extractor machine is a work of art. A cross between the latest diagnostic imaging machine and an installation piece at the MOMA, the thing is a wonder to behold and is reassuringly over-engineered. The extractor would make a fine showpiece in any chic diagnostic clinic, and that must be part of Barthes’s critique. The glitzy marketing of increasingly expensive medical technology and pharmaceuticals appealing to a boutique-style clientele is really just wasting money on the vain. It’s perhaps the most coherent point of the film. I doubt Flinstein takes Medicaid.
However, when treating the soul more directly, Barthes loses focus. With some priceless sight gags, she establishes early on that the soul is material. It can be touched, smelled, handled, and even dropped on the floor. After extraction, each soul looks different. But when removed not much seems to happen. This is a brilliant stroke of writerly restraint on the part of Barthes. Many less subtle writers and directors would have gone in for a host of cheesy side effects in the aftermath of extraction. Not Barthes who cleverly and deftly handles life after the soul has left. Something definitely changes with Giamatti, but it is hard for the audience to perceive. His wife says he smells differently and that his skin is scaly. It is through her reaction to him that we can most perceive the change in Giamatti. It is a change that only an attentive spouse can really fully appreciate. The audience only gets to see Giamatti’s gloomy mug lift from crushingly depressed to merely uncomfortably empty. But that’s about it. It’s really hard to say what has happened to Giamatti as a result of the procedure.
It is a brilliant piece of writing, but it doesn’t say much about the function/purpose/nature of the soul. At the end of the day, Barthes really seems to offer nothing more than her Dr. Flintstein who says that not much is known about the soul. And if this is Barthes’s point, then well enough. But the film’s ending suggests that it has accomplished more than merely pointing out some points of departure for those wanting a thorough consideration of the soul. Without having resolved anything regarding the nature of the soul, the film dodges the soul question and ends on a note about the importance of shared life experiences.
Interestingly enough the film itself has a very compassionate soul. Flintstein truly wants to help and is genuinely upset over some of Giamatti’s unfortunate circumstances. The relationship between Giamatti and his wife is a wonderful depiction of marriage. Much of what is communicated between the two is non-verbal, almost pheremonal. She loves him and he loves her. It’s nice. There’s nothing cold about Cold Souls.