Empathy

Amie Siegel's documentary/drama hybrid Empathy has a lot in common with Steven Soderbergh's 2001 exercise Full Frontal, though Siegel's film is better conceived, and maybe even more effectively executed. A poet and installation artist as well as a filmmaker, Siegel begins with the fictional story of actress Gigi Buffington and her adventures in psychotherapy. Siegel inserts interviews with actual psychiatrists, and in the middle of the film, she breaks for a mini-documentary, narrated by Buffington, about the relationship between modern psychoanalysis and modern architecture. (Both disciplines encourage interiors and exteriors to blend seamlessly.) Siegel goes into the history of the model of psychiatrist's chair most prevalent in Hollywood movies, and plays games with her narrative by including footage of Buffington and other actresses reciting dialogue, during the Empathy audition process, that advances the film's plot. Siegel also includes behind-the-scenes footage of Buffington preparing for the scenes she's about to play, and video of the Empathy wrap party, wherein one of the psychiatrists–apparently an old friend of the Siegel family–admits that he had a hard time during his interview not remembering the filmmaker as a little girl. Somehow, all of these scattered pieces of film and video fit together, as do the ideas they represent. In Siegel's eye, the deceptions of cinematic art and the deceptions of the therapeutic process prove to be consistent with the 20th-century epidemic of voyeurism and exhibitionism. As a sort of sub-theme, she casually wonders whether women make better patients and better actresses because their bodies evolve almost daily. Because Siegel keeps the film in a constant state of change, what might have been a rough punch of abstract theorizing has been softened considerably. The dramatic segments of Empathy are a little creaky, mainly because when actors play actors it's hard to know whether an uneven performance is intentional, but Siegel helps by staging scenes cleverly, as with a conversation between old friends that takes place, pointedly, in a revolving restaurant. And Siegel's documentary segments are spot-on: She grills analysts about how much they lie to their patients, how much of the job involves putting on a show, whether they experience real intimacy with their patients, and how psychiatry is similar to other paid services. When she asks one doctor if psychiatry is much different from prostitution, he laughs the question off and says that obviously the two are different. One is legal.

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