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Genre-bending 'Empathy' is full of surprises

When not wondering what kind of men become gynecologists, many women secretly ponder the same sort of questions about their male therapists. Isn't there something inherently sketchy, we might ask ourselves, about a guy who gets paid to examine a woman's most intimate areas in private?

Maybe not, but the question is as old as psychoanalysis itself, and therefore seems plenty intriguing enough to warrant the extended attention it gets in Amie Siegel's ''Empathy," a revealing and dryly humorous film about voyeurism and the patient-doctor relationship. At the very least, some of the answers and observations offered up in this hybrid documentary/drama/thesis project will surprise you.

In addition to filmmaking, writer-director Siegel is known for her poetry (''The Waking Life") and visual art installations, and she also writes essays. That may partially explain why ''Empathy" has so many different looks and feels to it, as though the artist couldn't settle on one kind of brush, so she went ahead and painted with everything in her box. There is a dramatic narrative involving Lia (Gigi Buffington), a 38-year-old voice-over performer undergoing therapy to try to figure out why she feels so anxious and detached (hint: new boyfriend, old parenting issues). Then there are nonfiction interviews with psychotherapists -- all white middle-age males, in the Freudian tradition -- who field such questions as: Do you lie to your patients and/or fantasize about having sex with them? Additionally, Siegel throws in cast-member interviews, audition footage, and myriad other odds and ends; there's even a faux documentary on the comfy Eames chair that contemporary analysts favor. The net result is a genre-bending film that gives viewers much to consider, but often feels like thought interrupted, and without good reason.

It's difficult to care about Lia's problems when she flits in and out with all the staying power of a commercial, just as it's impossible to gather any momentum on the documentary side when the talking heads keep getting cut off at the knees. Lia's fictional story adds nothing to the therapists' real-world analysis that couldn't be gained from a more stylistically compatible case history, even if Buffington's natural acting talents are a delight to watch in any context.

Siegel herself appears onscreen a couple of times, during which she says that she's made this film because she's interested in the role of the spectator and the issues that surround therapy. When she was a patient herself, she reveals, she saw only female analysts (aha!). ''Empathy," with its chorus of father-figure shrinks, is a deconstruction of psychotherapy and a meditation on authority.

I'll buy that. The film asks many provocative questions.

But its answers would be easier to get at if its creative construction had fewer personalities.

Janice Page can be reached at

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