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Sophie Barthes is nothing like Charlie Kaufman. For one, the East Village–based director of Cold Souls, a surrealist melancholy romp that’s drawn comparisons to Being John Malkovich, is French. She’s also a woman. And, as she explains with the clarity of a worldly intellectual—she grew up in Iran, Abu Dhabi, Algeria, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, and Paris—just because her film stars Paul Giamatti as actor “Paul Giamatti” and portrays him undergoing a medical procedure that “extracts” his soul doesn’t mean she’s ripping off the acclaimed screenwriter.
“The French producers and executives who saw the movie never made the comparison, because they have all these other references,” says the 34-year-old filmmaker. Barthes enumerates many: surrealist writers André Breton and Boris Vian, Russian author Nikolai Gogol, theater of the absurd playwrights Eugène Ionesco and Jean Tardieu, and filmmakers Federico Fellini, Woody Allen, and, most of all, Luis Buñuel. (“For me, Buñuel is the master,” she says.)
“I don’t want people to think my movie is derivative,” continues Barthes, who moved to New York to attend Columbia’s film school in 2001. “I don’t think it feels like a Kaufman film—he’s much more cynical, sarcastic, and twisted.”
Indeed, Barthes’s feature debut has a more lyrical and tender spirit, less indebted to the severe Freudian complexes that underline Kaufman’s work than the Jungian notions that inspired her story. In 2005, Barthes had a dream after reading Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul: She’s waiting in line at a futuristic doctor’s office, carrying a box that contains her soul. Woody Allen is also in the line; when he discovers his soul looks like a chickpea, he’s furious. (The chickpea revelation acts as a running gag in Cold Souls.) Barthes had initially considered Allen for the starring role, but never thought he’d go along with a first-time director. Eventually, she chose Giamatti. “On-screen,” she says, “he clearly transmits a vulnerable soul.”
But Barthes admits the protagonist is ultimately an extension of herself: “When I wrote the screenplay, I felt very trapped mentally in this country,” she says, mentioning George W. Bush, the war in Iraq, and Americans’ complacency and—shall we say—soullessness. “I couldn’t bear it any more,” she continues. “I literally felt my soul was shrinking.”
“Cold Souls” screens March 27 and March 29