By Aaron Mesh
Cold Souls is the most perceptive movie ever made about the side effects of anti-depression and anti-anxiety medication, though you can scan the reviews out of New York and LA without encountering a single reference to pharmaceuticals—probably because saying it's a movie about Paul Giamatti paying to have his soul extracted and placed in cold storage makes it sound like a much better deal.
Certainly it sounds like a deal to Paul Giamatti, who secured his title as prince of schlubs with American Splendor and Sideways. In Cold Souls, the droopy actor plays himself as even more spiritually deflated than his roles suggested. He's performing Chekhov's Uncle Vanya on Broadway, and the movie opens with the camera circling his rehearsal of a speech. "If I could just live what is left in a different way," he says, and pauses, overcome with pain. "I can't do this anymore," he continues, and suddenly there's a jolt of confusion—is he speaking for Vanya, or for himself? Either way, he can't finish the scene.
This being a slyly drab fantasy, it is only a matter of time until Giamatti reads a New Yorker article about soul extraction, looks up the business in the Yellow Pages (advertised next to "self storage") and heads out to Roosevelt Island. Here a compassionate metaphysician (David Strathairn) explains that the soul is a gland, as easily removed as the appendix. "Do you honestly believe it's enough to just live and not suffer?" the doctor asks. "Everyone wants to be happy, and I'm sure you're no exception." Giamatti enters the extraction machine—its sleek white curves suggest it was designed by Apple—and emerges with his soul in a plastic tube. His spiritual organ, he learns to his horror, is the size of a chickpea. Another way of saying this is that it is the size of a pill.
Giamatti's post-operative symptoms include increased appetite, a loss of sexual desire for his wife and a nearly complete emotional detachment from other people. He feels hollowed out, he says. These are almost exactly the complaints most commonly offered by people on high dosages of selective antidepressants. In other words, Cold Souls is a cautionary allegory about the unintended results of such medication.
I am not saying that depression and anxiety medications are anything but a great gift. (I use them; they have probably saved my life.) What I am saying is that the progress of neuroscience has far outpaced our ability to understand its consequences. Cold Souls is one of the few works of fiction I've seen that is willing to broach the topic, even obliquely. Director Sophie Barthes deserves great acclaim for this, even if the second half of her movie gets bogged down in a Russian organ-smuggling conspiracy that distracts from the central storyline. Barthes offers Paul Giamatti a solution to the old problem that wherever you go, there you are. Wherever he goes, he's in a climate-controlled warehouse in New Jersey. The real miracle of science would happen if he could find happiness actually being where he is.
Directed by Sophie Barthes
With Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Dina Korzun and Emily Watson