Filmmaker Sophie Barthes was born in France and grew up in the Middle East and South America. A Columbia University graduate, Barthes has made short films that garnered numerous awards. She completed residencies at the Nantucket Screenwriters Colony and the 2007 Sundance Directors Lab. Her new film, Cold Souls, is in selected theaters now.
The Curator: The film begins with a quote from French philosopher René Descartes: “The soul has its principal seat in the small gland located in the middle of the brain.” How do you interpret this statement? What does it lend the film?
Sophie Barthes: The idea was to be ironic. We had to read a lot of Descartes in French school. This quote is from “The Passions of the Soul.” I find it very funny and absurd. I’ve always been suspicious of dualism in philosophy (the idea that mind and body are two ontologically separate categories). I feel that the relationship between the psyche and the body is more mysterious and complex and more integrated and intertwined than we think.
In the film I’m trying to show that soul extraction (and the idea that the soul is just a little gland that could be removed), although made possible by what Dr. Flintstein proudly refers to as “the progress and triumph of the mind,” is not sustainable: Nina, the soul mule, gets worn out and her system often rejects the souls she carries like an incompatible transplanted organ; soul donors cannot bear the feeling of emptiness; and Paul, after an initial moment of bliss, experiences a complete sense of loss.
Cold Souls is the story of a famous American actor, Paul Giamatti, who hits a wall with his performance in Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya.” Weighed down by his own issues and desperate to regain his creative abilities, he undergoes a new procedure that promises to clear some needed space within him: soul extraction and storage. However, soullessness doesn’t meet his expectations, and soon his life is derailed. Traveling deep into the bizarre world of underground Russian soul trading, Giamatti’s struggle to be reunited with his soul is both humorous and unsettling.
The concept of being separate from one’s soul is a peculiar one – how did you come up with the idea?
The idea came in a strange and funny dream I had three years ago. In the dream I’m waiting in line in a doctor’s office, holding a box, like everybody else in line. A doctor comes and tells us that our souls have been extracted and a doctor will examine it and assess its problems. Woody Allen is also in line, in front of me. When his turn comes, he opens his box and discovers that his soul is a just a little chickpea! He is furious and fidgety and says there is no way, that it must be a mistake. At this point, I feel extremely anxious. I look down at my container but the dream ends. I never saw the shape of my soul!
What makes it something we might all relate to?
When I had this dream, I was reading Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. The dream and the screenplay are infused with many Jungian themes. Jung believed in the existence of a collective unconscious made of shared symbols and myths.
As a child, my favorite tale was “The Princess and the Pea.” I never fully understood the meaning of this tale. But now in retrospect, I realize that the pea has a strong symbolic meaning. How can such a small thing disturb the Princess’s sensibility so much? And in Cold Souls, or in my dream, how can such a tiny soul, a simple chickpea, create so much turmoil? I was doing some research on the Internet while writing Cold Souls and I discovered a Sufi poem about a “chickpea soul.” It’s definitively a shared symbol.
Jung also explains that one of the biggest fears in primitive societies was the “loss of the soul,” where the soul could escape from the body and find refuge in a tree or an animal. He saw a correlation between that fear and modern neurosis or depression. I believe that the desire to be artificially released from the troubles of the soul (from Prozac to, maybe one day, soul extraction) is part of an obsessive quest for well-being, particularly in this country. 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 let it shrink . . .
One of the more striking things about the film is how it contrasts styles – humor with tragedy, sci-fi with very convincing present-day reality. This is an unconventional technique; were you concerned with how viewers would respond?
Yes, the tone is definitely tricky. I intentionally blended comedy and tragedy, but I’m conscious that this combination requires a lot from the audience. Some people can’t deal with the shift of emotions or tone. They need a unity of tone. But for me, this is closer to how life is. In a given day, I can go from a profound melancholic state to euphoria or lightness. Also, I love the Chekhovian tone. Most people sees his plays as tragedies, but I think they are very comic, too – especially “Uncle Vanya.” Chekhov knew how to blend comedy and tragedy so perfectly.
In filmmaking there is a lot of collaboration, yet this film has your individual mark. How did you maintain your vision throughout the process?
I couldn’t imagine making this film without cinematographer Andrij Parekh. He is my life and creative partner. He brought so much to the film – his sensibility, his style, his craft. I guess the writing and choice of actors has an individual mark, but in the process of making the film it got so intertwined with Andrij’s style that by the end of the process it’s difficult to say what comes from whom. That’s the beauty of cinema as a medium – it’s very collaborative.
How would you describe the creative process in making Cold Souls?
I use my dreams a lot in the creative process. I’ve been keeping a dream journal for years and used many of them for Cold Souls, particularly in the “soul sequences,” when characters look at their souls or someone else’s soul. I also like to put together a visual treatment with paintings, photos, and drawings that inspire me visually. For Cold Souls, I gathered hundreds of pictures and paintings from artists such as Francis Bacon, James Turrell, Deborah Turbeville, and Bill Henson.
Andrij and I would always go back to those images to immerse ourselves in the visual world we wanted to create. We decided that we didn’t want any primary colors in the film but a very soft, pastel palette. We thought that, unconsciously, it could affect the viewers and put them in a strange dreamlike mood. The cinema industry tends to forget that their medium is visual, and relies solely on the screenplay. I would always have people read the screenplay and look at the visual treatment.
This film is one of the greatest creative ventures you’ve embarked upon. How has it changed you?
It changes you the way time and life change you. I remain faithful to my ideals, but I’ve learned a lot in the process. I’m always very critical, so I can see all the things I would do differently today. You can only learn cinema by making it. A first film is full of imperfections, and sometimes that’s what is charming about it, but I think the objective is to develop and grow as a filmmaker and try to master the craft a little bit better every time you get the chance to work.