Empathy, Amie Siegel’s seriously playful essay on the art and craft of psychoanalysis, opens with a close-up of a commanding, if unoccupied, lounge chair in a book-lined office. It’s unmistakably the scene of a very special transaction, but who’s in charge? The disembodied voice of authority can be heard giving instructions over the phone. “Did you get that?” the doctor asks, entering screen right. “We turned the mic off,” the unseen filmmaker blandly lies—and we’re off into an adventure of denial, displacement, and (mis-) identification.
Siegel is a poet and maker of media installations, and her movie is predicated on juxtaposition and rife with provocative symptoms. “It’s almost as if my voice was not my voice,” a female analysand complains, as she perches nervously on the edge of the famous couch. Identified in the credits as Lia, this fortyish woman is a professional actress who does voice-overs, and she is played by a professional actress (Gigi Buffington) with an unmistakable resemblance to Jamie Lee Curtis. Lia (sounds like . . . ) is a fiction who personifies Siegel’s sense of the complexity of the psychoanalytic transaction.
Daring the critic to parse its identity crisis, Empathy is several films in one. The least resolved of these is a psychological melodrama. Lia meets her sister in a dark apartment for a scene fraught with sibling anxiety. The two women trade jibes about their personal lives and childhood experiences, and Lia tells the story of a suicide who jumped to her death at the mall where she had just been shopping. (“Did she buy anything?” the most unempathetic sister wants to know.) How did it make Lia feel, one might wonder. Her interview with a news crew is supplanted by a more blatantly narcissistic fantasy of being a successful actress interviewed on TV.
A second, more provocative film consists of Siegel’s interviews in situ with three middle-aged male shrinks. Siegel doesn’t exactly put her subjects on the couch, but she does place them on the defensive—asking if they ever lie to their patients, how they would distinguish between their therapy and prostitution, and whether they consider themselves voyeurs. The friendliest of the shrinks frankly admits that his job enables the pleasure of watching assorted women walk in and lie down on his couch, to reveal things about themselves that they would otherwise never tell him. (Siegel doesn’t ask her shrinks if they ever learn things they wish they hadn’t, but she does include a scene in which Lia gets more sexual information from a friend than she cares to know.)
Empathy is most insistent in encouraging the shrinks to express their (unacted upon) sexual fantasies regarding their patients; the friendly shrink eloquently compares the loss of a beautiful woman patient to oedipal mourning. Meanwhile, the voyeuristic spectator is free to ponder the semiotics of the guys’ various chairs and the nature of their body language—are they comfortable or nervous, authoritarian or liberal? As befits its title, Empathy has aspects of free-floating psychodrama. Talk of image projection prompts a montage in which a series of women primp as though before the mirror—it’s revealed they are all actresses who auditioned for the part of Lia. There’s another sort of through-the-looking-glass setup when the filmmaker ambushes Lia’s shrink (a real analyst playing an analyst in the movie) to ask impertinent questions about the pretend patient she invented and assigned to him.
Empathy is not without a historical dimension. Midway through, Siegel shifts gears to provide a documentary digression on modernism and psychoanalysis. The birth trauma is explained by an academic who is also a nursing mother; the discussion segues into one of the psychoanalytic architect Richard Neutra and the history of the Eames lounge chair with its oxymoronic amalgam of “progressive modernism and grandfatherly tradition.” But Empathy is mainly about itself. Late in the movie, the filmmaker goes to the interpersonal by filming a cast party—amazing how diminished her shrinks seem once taken from their offices.
The most avuncular of the analysts is even further demystified once he admits that he’s known Siegel since she was a child. This revelation, however, leads to a mock session in which the precocious filmmaker successfully turns the table on the grown-up therapist by citing her “authority issues” with male analysts. This then tracks into Lia’s final session—a confrontation with her shrink that unexpectedly becomes a moving instance of projection and transference: “That’s why you were seeing me in your bedroom.”
Meta-documentary to the end, Empathy takes its leave by pretending to spy on one patient with his ear to the closed door, eavesdropping on another patient. How did watching the movie make me feel? Interested, amused, and um, empathetic.