VENICE - How do you break an already broken man? It'd be presumptuous to say that this is one of the questions asked by Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" -- and it certainly asks no end of them, both verbally and otherwise -- but it was the first of many it left me asking. In a film that devotes an abundance of screen time to replicating (though not, contrary to more excitable pre-screening rumours, ridiculing) the Scientological auditing process, an interrogative therapy designed to draw out unconscious truths, the spontaneous personal response is surely not to be distrusted.

Elliptical but hardly indecisive, testy but hardly incendiary, Anderson's exquisitely sculpted film is about more individual-based values and desires than its grabby advance reputation as a Scientology exposé promised: trust, admiration, sex, kinship. "The Master" turns out to be many of the things I expected it to be -- a sharp evaluation of what we are prepared to believe in exchange for self-possession, a richly textured evocation of American social vulnerabilities in the aftermath of WWII, most inevitably of all, another literate chapter in Paul Thomas Anderson's ongoing thesis on the positive and corruptive powers of charismatic leadership. What I had not quite anticipated, however, was a romance -- much less one between two men.

Of course, Freddie Quell -- the gnarled, dissolute ex-seaman with whom we enter and leave proceedings -- and Lancaster Dodd -- the fruitily urbane man of letters (turned ambitiously to action) in whose vessel he haphazardly lands -- don't come close to fucking in this oft-unbuttoned film. Nor do they show any signs of wanting to, though the inveterately horny Freddie doesn't seem a man to turn down an offer.

But from the moment Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) meet in almost fairytale fashion -- the sailor surreptitiously takes shelter in the older man's boat/castle, only to be mysteriously summoned to the Master's chamber the next morning -- Anderson charts the beats of a relationship as one would a grand love story: seduction, acquiescence, devotion, betrayal and reconciliation, variously shuffled, rinsed and repeated across a robust two-and-a-quarter hours heavier on sinuously compelling micro-conflicts than grand dramatic peaks and troughs. 

Yes, these are the stages a suggestible person might also travel through in their relationship to any clique, philosophy, religion or -- let's get this four-letter word out in the open -- cult. You can pick the word of your preference to describe The Cause, the opaque self-help programme founded by Dodd. The very cadence of his full name invites parallels to L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer who expanded his own mental profiling strategy, Dianetics, into a self-contained Church in the early 1950s. (As someone who was once curious enough to take one of those "free tests" offered by wiry men in boxy-shouldered suits on many a city pavement, Anderson's pseudo-auditing scenes prompted a cold tingle of recognition.) It's no more a revelation that "The Master" is patently a riff on Scientology's origins than that "Citizen Kane"  traces around the life of William Randolph Hearst.

Like "Kane," however, Anderson's film is a swaggering character study rather than a scabrous attack on an institution, and more far-reaching for it. As played, and brilliantly so, by Hoffman, there's actually much to like and admire in the generous, persuasive Dodd, who has a lofty vision and fierce self-conviction, but isn't quite a megalomaniac: "Above all, I am a man," are the words with which he introduces himself to Quell, and the film leaves unspoken the question of whether he really believes that or not.

For his part, the feckless, psychologically stunted Quell never seems as invested in Dodd's philosophies as he does in Dodd himself: like "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood," "The Master" powerfully delinates the influence, for better and worse, that men can wield over boys. This time, however, it feels like less of a father-son dynamic than one of two unequal lovers in stasis: the film's surprisingly (and sure to be divisively) sparse, stately second half amounts to a protracted, semi-circling breakup, as Quell realises he's not benefiting or growing from Dodd's guidance, and the more powerful partner can't quite relinquish ownership. Small wonder that Dodd's tightly wound wife (a sparely but scorchingly used Amy Adams) regards Quell with such growing hostility: "You can do whatever you want as long as nobody finds out," she tells her husband, but she may have more control in this rum family than is immediately apparent.

Paul Thomas Anderson's cinema has never not been enthrallingly untidy in its emotions and ideas. But while all observations about his latest feel tentative after a single viewing, it's tempting to call "The Master" his most malleable film to date, for all the crisp lines of its formal construction. It's also likely his coldest, in a way that may or may not chill the prestige-season awards hopes otherwise beckoned by its beefy political substance, uniformly remarkable performances and quite astonishing sense of craft, unmatched by anything in American film so far this year.

Phoenix and Hoffman -- mutually enhancing co-leads, whatever the Weinsteins' Oscar strategists have to say about the matter -- dance an alternately fractious and delicately synchronised pas de deux. With Phoenix still channelling the writhing gonzo energy that informed his performance-art stint a few years back, he's walked into a role here that could prove, if not career-defining, at least career-recapping: Quell seems built from the actor's full arsenal of technical gifts and creative eccentricities. More sleekly mannered, but no less impressive, is Hoffman. Nattily presented for a change, the actor is as disquietingly self-possessed when dryly quizzing his recruits as when he calculatedly indulges Dodd's hambone side: a sweetly unnerving rendition of "On a Slow Boat to China" late in the film is the work of -- and do forgive me for this -- a master. 

And since I've gone there, the same goes for Anderson's scientifically calculated mise-en-scène. Working for the first time with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (lately, the best thing about Francis Ford Coppola's film), he proves that the film's unconventional, much-ballyhooed 70mm treatment was no empty auteur gambit, even if the film is more intimate than ostentatious.

The depth of color and fullness of light here dazzles from one meticulous non-widescreen composition to the next, embracing the polished surfaces of Jack Fisk's typically rationed but fastidious period production design -- the taupe-marble department store where Quell works early in the film is a particular triumph -- with almost sinister houseproud fervor. Lest his audience be lulled, however, Anderson isn't afraid to chop up all this glowing beauty with fidgety, slow-quick editing rhythms and another splendid score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood that itself blends brooding orchestrations with yawning white space. Whether acolytes of the Church of Scientology are outraged or not by Anderson's coolly reserved provocation remains to be seen -- but they can't complain he hasn't given them style.