“And then, existence is tedious, anyway; it is a senseless, dirty business, this life, and goes heavily. Everyone about here is silly, and after living with them for two or three years one grows silly oneself. It is inevitable,” Astrov, the disillusioned dreamer in Chekhov’s tragi-comedy Uncle Vanya, confides in the old nurse Marina.
In Cold Souls, Paul Giamatti, playing the rarified, sensitive actor, Paul Giamatti, has burdened his soul with the travails and world-weariness of Chekhov’s Vanya. “What happened to your sense of humour for Christ sakes?” the director asks him after a harrowing recitation of a Vanya soliloquy during rehearsal. The camera pans about him, making the huge, empty theatre seem as claustrophobic as an understudy’s dressing room.
Giamatti desires to continue playing the great part, but at what cost to his soul? His heart literally pangs, he wears his worries in his stomach, Vanya is too all consuming. In his lonely apartment, contemplating suffering over a finger or two of whisky, he picks up a copy of the New Yorker his agent has referred to him, and reads about the new fandangled process of soul extraction. Could he really part with his soul for just a couple of weeks to see out the play?
Giamatti tries his luck. “I don’t need to be happy, I just don’t want to suffer,” he tells Dr. Flinstein, played ever-brilliantly by David Strathairn. Giamatti peruses some extracted souls, greyish blackish blobs of seeming nothingness. “Geez, how did we get to this point?” asks Giamatti. Un-ironically, Flinstein replies, “Progress, triumph of the mind.”
But the process isn’t out of the experimental stage yet, and while Giamatti professes to be “hollow” and “light,” he plays Vanya in the next rehearsal with a crudity not becoming of Chekhov’s sensitive, melancholic Vanya. He can’t make love to his wife. He is unapologetically offensive. In other words, he is numb. He wants to be complete again: he wants it back. But his “chickpea” of a soul, is missing.
Giamatti sets out to retrieve his chickpea with the help of a tired, soul-mule, Nina, whose excessive soul-intake has left its “residue,” as she bears the burden of all the souls who have cruised through her to be sold as a modern times panacea.
Just as Nina becomes a tapestry, painted by the fragments of each soul she smuggles, you can construe the concept of “residue” as metaphor for the acting profession. Just as Giamatti is paid to project a multitude of characters on his person, does he not come to be inflected by those he plays? To wear their personas, memories and, ennui?
Cold Souls is a delightful, delicious cinematic treat and I was happy and willing for it to leave its residue on my soul. Criticised by some reviewers for being too Charlie Kaufman-esque, I think we see enough of the same boring films over and over again without such consternation. If a film is an ode to a rare style, albeit an established one, why make such a fuss? I say, more chickpeas, please.