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    Psychoanalysis on the couch

    "Empathy," written and directed by Amie Siegel, is a talking-heads film about the talking cure that's too often enraptured by the sound of its own voice.


    "Empathy" is a self-reflexive, genre-crossing examination of two of modernism's most significant cultural contributions, film and psychoanalysis. But its tone is so studiously and insistently postmodern that its self-reflexivity often feels more prescribed than playful, and its blurring of the "documentary" and "narrative fiction" genres more programmatic than inspired. The film is most engaging at its most conventional — in its interviews with practicing psychoanalysts, old white men who uniformly decorate their offices with wooden furniture, leather chairs, and toppling piles of academic books.

    Written and directed by: Amie Siegel.
    Produced by: Mark Rance.
    Cast: Gigi Buffington, Dr. David Solomon, Aria Knee, Maria Silverman.
    Music by: Steve Ford.

    Related links: Official site
    Film Forum 209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.) (212) 727-8100 Jan. 21 — Feb. 3, 2004

    But the ideas "Empathy" cares most about are enacted in its other strands: a fictional narrative about Lia, an insecure actress undergoing psychoanalysis, and then, as if the film itself were undergoing analysis, clips from its production, including screen tests for the part of Lia. The roles of doctor and patient, the film implies, are a performance, as pre-scripted as Lia's character. But the equivalency between therapy and acting is more rhetorical than convincing, in part because therapy's ability or inability to transcend its script seems dependent on its practitioners' intelligence.

    Instead, "Empathy's" ideas on our reliance on, or the inevitability of, performance work best when parodying the "media interview" and its highly mediated nonfiction. In a stagy Q&A with a fawning, elderly reporter, the fictional actress Jennifer Scott James discusses her role as Lia in "Empathy" (a role "actually" played by Gigi Buffington, who also plays Jennifer), and runs through all the clichÄs celebrities rely on when "playing" themselves. Who's the real Jennifer Scott James, the reporter asks. James responds with her "ideal evening" — reading a book in front of a fireplace with her seven labrador retrievers — as if nowadays, the "real" must always contain an element of voyeurism. And how about your love life, the reporter asks. "I feel like it cheapens the romance to talk about it," Jennifer answers. (In response to recent questions about her love life, just-married actress Gwyneth Paltrow told reporters, "The relationship that I'm in is really ... sacred to me and I just feel like I need to protect it.")

    The psychoanalysts, however, prefer to give thoughtful, unscripted and unconventional answers, and most of "Empathy's" charm comes from the role reversal implicit in interviewing psychoanalysts. But the film only approaches honesty when, toward its end, the roles are again reversed and Amie Siegel, the film's director and interviewer, is asked her motivations for choosing psychoanalysis as the film's subject. Siegel responds with a litany of postmodern keywords — she's interested in "enactment, representation ... narrative rhetoric, spectatorship, authority," voyeurism, and sexual exploitation. Here, and throughout the interviews, her voice trembles with the insecurity of a college student attending an esteemed professor's office hours; her reliance on loaded words seems a wan gesture of authority, an unintentional admission and amplification of her, and her film's, insecurities.

    "Empathy" retreads Postmodernism 101, as if the film were a test rather than an essay, its familiarity with class lectures more important than proving one or two points well. Siegel's intelligence is consistently apparent, but she needs a more focused film for it to shine, in which ideas accumulate rather than announce themselves and dissipate. We can only hope "Empathy" was a type of career therapy, in which her more questionable motivations became clear — confessed, worked through, and then discarded.

    JANUARY 21, 2004

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