Cold Souls: Interview with Director Sophie Barthes

Sophie Barthes is the writer-director of “Cold Souls,” starring Paul Giamatti, which is released August 7, 2009 by Samuel Goldwyn.

Inspired by Jung and woody Allen

“Three years ago, I found an old edition of C.G. Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. According to Jung, the drama of modern man is his refusal to live the totality of his being. He tends to ignore the burden of his soul, believing that it is called freedom but, like Sisyphus, he is condemned to roll his stone up the hill. The night I finished the book, I had a strange dream.

I had also just watched one of my favorite Woody Allen film, SLEEPER. A strange synaptic connection must have happened in my brain. In my dream, I am waiting in line to see a doctor in a white futuristic office. I am holding a box, like everybody else in line. A secretary explains that the box contains our soul, which has just been extracted. The doctor will examine it and assess our psychological problems. Woody Allen is also in line, just in front of me! When his turn comes, he discovers that his soul is a pale yellow seed: a chickpea. Woody Allen is furious; he insists it must be a mistake – with all the movies he made, his soul cannot have the shape and size of a chickpea! At this point, I feel extremely anxious. I look down at my container to check the shape of my soul but at that precise moment the dream ends. I never saw the shape of my soul.

Sharing a Dream

I shared my dream with my life and creative partner, cinematographer Andrij Parekh. The premise was so absurdly funny and strange that I decided to turn it into a screenplay. The films I like the most have a dreamlike quality; for all their apparent obviousness dreams have multiple interpretations. My first impulse was to write for Woody Allen, but I thought I would most probably never have access to him.

Paul Giamatti

Later on, I saw “American Splendor” and was so impressed by Paul Giamatti’s presence and emotional charge on screen that I decided to write the script for him. I like to write for a specific actor in mind, good actors are an infinite source of inspiration. I was lucky enough to win a screenplay competition at the Nantucket Film Festival in 2006 and, by coincidence, to meet Paul Giamatti in person, who was also attending the event to present an award to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor.

Playful Philosophy

Cold Souls deals with philosophical concepts but I hope that the approach remains playful. I’m very influenced by Surrealism as a movement (film, painting, literature, poetry) and the Theater of the Absurd, which is not really a movement but a number of playwrights (Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Tardieu, etc…) sharing stylistic characteristics: a tone mixing comedy, satire, irony, melancholy and tragedy, characters caught in dreamlike, nightmarish or hopeless situation, dialogue flirting with clichés and nonsense.

Poetic Sci-Fi

I’m also interested in poetic science fiction, low-fi from the 60’s (Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville). In Cold Souls, soul extraction and soul rental, although made possible by what Dr. Flintstein proudly refers to as “the progress and triumph of the mind,” is not sustainable: Olga, a soul donor, cannot bear the feeling of emptiness. Nina, the main soul mule, gets worn out and her system often rejects the souls she carries like an incompatible transplanted organ. And Paul, after an initial moment of bliss and obliviousness, experiences a complete sense of loss. To convince Paul to extract his soul, Dr. Flintstein finds a compelling argument: “A twisted soul is like a tumor, better to remove it!” Flintstein incarnates a naïve scientific positivism: the body is a simple skeleton wrapped in muscles, filled with organs and orchestrated by the mind. The soul is no more than a troublemaker. I believe that the desire to be artificially released from the troubles of the soul (from drugs to soul extraction and soul rental) is part of our obsessive quest for well-being.

Depression and Introspection

A depression or breakdown could be an opportunity for introspection, a rite of passage for the soul to grow and expand. But it’s perceived as a disease and must be treated immediately. Maybe the soul is a strange muscle, and it is possible to develop it or to let it shrink.”
                                                                                                            – Sophie Barthes, Writer/Director