Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of Plains Indian)

Cannes Film Fest 2013 (In Competition)–“Jimmy P.” (“Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian”), the latest from the talented French director Arnaud Desplechin, could have easily become yet another chronicle of a clinical case study, here conducted by a Freudian psychologist.

But as directed by Desplechin, the fact-inspired tale becomes an absorbing portrait of two individuals, who could not have been more different in terms of personality, culture, social, national, and ethnic backgrounds.

Inspired by a true story, Jimmy P. (P stands for Picard) is adapted from the book “Reality and Dream” by Georges Devereux. Published in 1951, the book reflects the remarkable multidisciplinary talents of its author, who stood at the crossroads between anthropology and psychoanalysis, opening the way, among other achievements, to ethno-psychiatry and other disciplines.

Inevitable comparisons will be made to other intimate melodramas (two-handlers in Variety’s jargon), centering on a psychiatrist (therapist) and an eccentric patient, ranging from “Equus” to “A Dangerous Method,” and even “The King’s Speech,” to mention few recent titles.

Both narratively and stylistically, the movie is rather conventional, but the colorful personalities of the two central figures, the actors who inhabit them (Benicio Del Toro and Mathieu Amalric), and the material itself are so fascinating that the end result is an absorbing film.

It’s hard to think of another film, French or English-speaking, which pays such minutia detail to the lengthy treatment process, documenting the progress made in session after session, until it reaches a satisfying solution—a state of grace—for both the professional and his patient.

Both protagonists—sort of Odd Couple—are outsiders in their own milieus, which may explain why they establish a quick, positive rapport from their very first meeting.
Georges Devereux, a Hungarian Jew, moved to Paris in the mid-1920s.

Following a short scientific study (notably with Madame Curie), he dedicated himself to ethnology and anthropology. A contemporary of Claude Levi-Strauss, who was at the time conducting his first studies of Amazonian natives, D chose North America as his area of experimentation.

By the time he joined the Topeka Winter Hospital, Devereux had already held several positions. This military hospital—recreated for the film—was one of the first in America to treat war vets suffering from various psychological and mental disorders.

At the end of WWII, Jimmy Picard (Del Toro), a Native American Blackfoot who fought in France, is admitted to Topeka Military Hospital in Kansas, an institute specializing in mental illness. Jimmy suffers from numerous symptoms: dizzy spells, temporary blindness, hearing loss, and a sense of withdrawal from himself and others.

In the absence of any physiological causes, he is diagnosed as schizophrenic. Nevertheless, the hospital management decides to seek the opinion of Devereux, a French anthropologist, psychoanalyst and specialist in Native American culture.
“Jimmy P.” describes the encounters and developing friendship between the two men, and through flashbacks, we get their socio-ethnic backgrounds and pasts. Obviously, Jimmy P. is allotted greater attention and more screen time than Devereux.

A good deal of the narrative unfolds as a series of dreams and nightmares, told from Jimmy’s P.O.V. and without disclosing too much of the puzzle that makes up his life as a Catholic Native American, suffice is to say that his main problems are with women (his mother died when he was five, he experienced a sexual trauma when seduced by an older girl and caught by his sister, his wife left him during the War for another man). All of these explorations and revelation are interspersed throughout the text, without resorting to hysteria, excessive melodramatics, and histrionic acting.

As played by Amalric, Devereux is a renaissance man, well versed in anthropology, sociology, ethnography, and human behavior. Defying the authorities and the medical establishment, he immediately comes to the conclusion that Jimmy P is not crazy, that there is nothing wrong with him other than what afflict and inflict other human beings in his position.

The weakest part of the narrative is a romantic affair between Devereux and a married woman Gina McKee), who comes to visit his at the hospital, and the duo makes love, ride horses, talk about this and that. But this subplot is contrived and superfluous—it’s as if the writers felt the need to insert some sex life for Devereux. When she leaves, we all sigh with relief, happy to go back to the center of the drama, which is never less than intriguing.

The lack of chemistry between Amalric and McKee, in and out of bed, makes things worse. Indeed, the always vibrant Amalric is at his best as an actor, and at his happiest as a character, when he is tete-a-tete with Jimmy P.

Without straining too much, “Jimmy P.” ultimately makes a strong case for the use psychoanalysis, due to the positive depiction of the process and the upbeat ending.

A longer review will be published later.