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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Paul Giamatti

By John Bloner Jr.

It’s not easy being Paul Giamatti. Despite receiving accolades for performances in films "American Splendor", “Sideways” and “Cinderella Man” and the mini-series, “John Adams”, The Believer magazine calls him, “the lit-geek equivalent of Gollum”. Onscreen, he’s often blue-collar, a boozer and a bastard. “I have no interest in sympathetic heroes”, he recently told George Stroumboulopoulos. “I can’t remember any time when I didn’t feel deeply cynical about humanity.”

He's my kind of guy. 

His first big break came in playing the part of “Pig Vomit” in Howard Stern’s picture, “Private Parts”. In his career, he’s also played a legless leper monk, a janitor with a stutter, and once earned a credit as the “man in a sleeping bag” on an episode of NYPD Blue. In the 2009 film “Cold Souls”, created by French director Sophie Barthes, he plays a character named Paul Giamatti, a New York actor who’s working off-Broadway in a production of Anton Chekov’s play “Uncle Vanya.”

Like the irascible Vanya, Giamatti's character is middle-aged, childless, and burdened by the belief that he's wasted his life. "I have a pain in my chest, like somebody put my heart in a vice and just tightened it," he tells his on-screen wife. What he wants to pull out, however, is not his heart, but his soul. In this film, a soul is not an immaterial entity, but a tangible thing that animates the person it possesses. For some, the soul is a source of enormous delight, while for others, it's a virus that defeats its host.

One night, Giamatti reads of a company that can extract his soul and place it in cold storage until he wishes to regain it.

"Cold Souls" is a comedy in the spirit of Chekov who referred to his plays as comedies. The Russian playwright's translator, Paul Schmidt, said of him, "If any one author ever had a sense of the human comedy, the heartbreaking ridiculousness of our everyday behavior, it was Chekov."

"Cold Souls" is heartbreakingly ridiculous as it depicts Giamatti's life as an actor and husband. He discovers that the absence of his soul is worse than the terrible weight of one. He can barely function. When he returns to the lab to reclaim it, he learns to his horror that not only has his soul been stolen, it's in Russia where it's been implanted in the body of a soul trafficker's wife.

For her first feature film, French director Sophie Barthes has created “Cold Souls” with a style of storytelling that has earned comparisons to the work of Charlie Kaufman in his work with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry and his own first picture. Barthes refutes the connection. "I don't think [Cold Souls] feels like a Kaufman film," she told the Village Voice. "He's much more cynical, sarcastic, and twisted."

Sophie Barthes with Paul Giamatti on the set of Cold Souls
A dream, by way of C.G. Jung and Woody Allen, inspired Barthes to create "Cold Souls". Before falling asleep, she was reading Jung's book "Modern Man In Search of Soul", which posits that modern man is manipulated by technology and mass media ads. In order to restore balance in his life, he must feed and strengthen his inner self.

Shen then dreamt of a doctor's office where she and other patients, including Woody Allen, were holding boxes that contained their souls. Allen was furious because his soul resembled a chickpea. Before Barthes could open her own box, the dream ended, but the inspiration for "Cold Souls" was born.

Barthes gives Giamatti a chickpea for a soul in her film, but the tiny garbanzo isn't a mere MacGuffin. Its role is transformed from an object of pain ("I feel stuck", Giamatti complains.) to embarrassment ("Are you telling me that my soul is a chickpea?" he cries out to his doctor) and finally to something that nourishes his life.

In the 13th century, the Persian poet Rumi spoke of a chickpea soul which discovers its torment is a process toward its delight.

A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot
where it's being boiled.

"Why are you doing this to me?"

The cook knocks him down with the ladle.

"Don't you try to jump out.
You think I'm torturing you.
I'm giving you flavor,
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being.

(poem excerpt: translation by Coleman Barks)

 Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) and Giamatti examine his chickpea soul.
Giamatti discovers the lovely vitality of being human through his inner and outer journeys in "Cold Souls".  The film is dominated by scenes of winter; yet, in the final image of Brighton Beach, the viewer sees the sun rise and the waves rush along the shore, symbolic of the thawing of the cold-soul in Giamatti and a new start for his life.

Barthes' partner, Andrij Parekh (shown above with her) served as cinematographer on the film, capturing a world of perpetual winter, buildings in ruin, and retro-futuristic technology. Together, they have created the short films "Happiness" and "Snowblink", along with "Cold Souls".

Composer Dickon Hinchliffe
Music plays an important role in "Cold Souls", as written and performed by Dickon Hinchliffe. Hinchliffe delivers a soundtrack that sounds at times like a music box or a baby's mobile. A great film is never the product of just one person, but the ensemble of actors, authors, set designers, cinematographers and those who create its music.  Critics have used terms like "sublime", "subdued melancholy" and "so inspired they make your limbs ache" to describe Hinchliffe's sounds as solo musician and as a member of the band, Tindersticks.

Barthes and Giamatti are teaming up again in 2013 to bring the novel Madame Bovary to the screen. Giamatti should revel in the role of Monsieur Homais, a long-winded, brown-nosing charlatan. He told the NY Daily News, "I find that the crazy narcissists, the selfish-loons are often the most fun to be around, weirdly."

They're also a lot of fun to watch.  Thanks, Paul.

Time Magazine has called Paul Giamatti, "the world's best character actor".  For more on him and his career, visit his page at IMDb.com.