According to a second-hand story, Sophie Barthes would routinely listen to round after round of advice during her Sundance fellowship on changing her script for Cold Souls. And, like clockwork, she would repeat the same mantra: “I have the money. I have Paul Giamatti. I do not have to change a thing.”
I heard this anecdote after watching Souls at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and there’s a definite confidence in Barthes’ work that borders on megalomania. Rather than taking advice or using the program to improve her script, the confidence in her abilities to wrangle a Name leading actor and funding led to an uncompromised vision. But in a year when other Sundance fellows are the consistent darlings of the film festival circuit (i.e. Bob Byington’s Harmony and Me) that have obviously and beneficially metamorphosed from draft to shooting script, Souls manages to prove its title right: It is cold, dead and has no chance of coming back to life.
The meta-narrative begins when “Paul Giamatti” (brilliantly re-imagined by Paul Giamatti) struggles to portray Uncle Vanya. In fact, if you want to keep track, this is also the start of the “meta-commentary” that Barthes is so confident in presenting to her audience. Since “Giamatti” cannot understand the emotional depths of Vanya due to his own insecurities about being really insecure, he clearly has angst. You could say this is now a parody of a parody of putting on a Chekov play.
Soon, “Giamatti” is having a moment all New Yorkers have—unable to sleep, standing out on their balcony, contemplating their life as Golden Hour occurs over the Upper East Side. The plot is pushed forward by a message from his agent to read the latest issue of The New Yorker. In it, he learns of The Soul Storage Company, which, much like the title of this film and the play, does/is exactly what it states.
I can only assume this is another Barthes’ technique: If things are named for what they are, then it is easy to comprehend and that is the joke. Of course, to continue the plot, Giamatti now trades in his own caricature for “Woody Allen” so he can wax poetic about the weight of souls, ridding one’s self of his soul for art and something about chickpeas. (We’ll get back to chickpeas. Ditto for the intentional Woody Allen transformation.)
From there, we’re reminded briefly of a sub-plot about the illegal trafficking of souls—did I mention they were Russian souls? Must be pretty cold, huh? (You’re laughing to yourself, right? You should be. These are the jokes you must laugh at.) Of course, Giamatti’s soul is harvested and stolen once he opts to have a “Russian poet’s” soul thrust into him, which helps him power through Vanya and reach a new level of acting, etc. Horrified at the thought of losing the very soul he cast off, he embarks on an attempt to find the traffickers, who luckily populate a seedy Brighton Beach motel he “remembers” thanks to his “Russian Poet” soul. And before you can say “is there a plot twi—” it turns out the main trafficker has fallen in love with Giamatti the Actor and is ready to reunite him with his soul!
I’m glossing over other mildly important plot points (sans soul, Giamatti acts like “William Shatner” according to Barthes in an interview with Spout; his soul goes to a Russian gangster’s girlfriend so she can act more coldly on a bottom-tier soap opera; the Soul Storage facility is on Roosevelt Island and there are merely three lingering shots of taking the tram back and forth) but only due to their lack of importance. Souls is a film that has a very simplistic understanding of meta-narrative, in that, if you have the money to produce such a film and the ability to hire an actor to play a “Version” of themselves, your film will be a Charlie Kaufman-esque hit. There is never a doubt that Barthes and the “Giamatti” she envisions aren’t a carefully constructed point of the story. But in their presentation, it is expected that an audience will see this combination and have they need to laugh or react in some form of amusement. This sort of conditioning has become commonplace when A/B-list talent cameo as themselves (Bruce Willis in Oceans Twelve, Harrison Ford and the Universal Pictures All-Star Band in Brüno.)
Souls are routinely presented by Barthes as minuscule food products, from “Giamatti’s” ’chickpea’ soul to another old Russian man whose soul is mocked as “a prune.” The joke is further hammered home when “Giamatti” arrives in Russia and is fed a plate of chickpeas he then pushes aside, while he is alone in a hotel dining room. This is the grand culmination of having Paul Giamatti, the actor, and the money to produce your film.
John Lichman is the online producer for Current.com/Movies and The Rotten Tomatoes Show. He’s wandering around the current_movies blog most days, but has also written for Spout, IFC and once co-hosted a podcast about Armond White and drinking.