Friday, May 31, 2013

Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian)

"I could talk about my dreams all day," says Benicio Del Toro's wounded-soul soldier near the end of the Cannes competition's wackiest, crappiest contender yet. It's a line that's meant to show just how far our Jimmy has come from the near-mute migraine-sufferer of the first reel. In fact, after an hour and a half's acquaintance with those dreams, it just sounds like a threat.

Arnaud Desplechin's latest begins like a lobotomised version of The Master, with our demobbed hero examined by mental health consultants – a dazzle of starched lab coats – suffering war trauma. A later, slightly anticlimatic scene shows how he sustained that scar to his head – by falling, a bit pissed, off the back of a lorry. A lorry that was going quite slowly.

Luckily, Jim has wound up at the Winter Hospital in Topeka, Kansas – "The best place in the country for brain trauma," chirps a nurse. By night he's allowed out to go boozing and seducing, by day there's arts and crafts (at one point a suicide interrupts some potato stenciling), as well as his own dedicated doc, summoned from New York specially. "May I introduce myself?" says Dr George Devereux on their first encounter, in one of the film's many exposition-tastic lines. "I am the hospital anthropologist and I am interested in Indians."

Devereux is played by the lovely French actor Mathieu Amalric in what one can only hope will go down as his worst ever turn. With the goggle-glasses and endless, inexplicable ebullience, it's less a performance than an audition for some Saturday Night Live skit. Early on he has a slapstick cold you're fully expecting to be exposed as a front for a chronic coke habit. But no, like so much in the film, it disappears as abruptly as it began. Scenes have a habit of stopping at any second, with or without whopping soundtrack; there's also some striking lighting changes.

Mathieu Amalric plays the ideal analyst to Benicio Del Toro's Blackfoot patient in the competition film exalting the work of ethno-psychoanalyst Georges Devereau

An American story that only the French could make, Jimmy P., Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian cries out for its own niche, one it will hopefully find beyond festival appreciation. The strange but true story of a Native American who underwent Freudian psychotherapy with a brilliant Romanian analyst after World War II proves a good fit for director Arnaud Desplechin, who has swung between documentary and fictional work throughout his career, and has never hesitated to take on a difficult project.

But turning one man’s analysis into filmed entertainment is an offbeat idea to say the least. The whole project is saved largely thanks to the subtext of ethnic discrimination that runs through the film, and two riveting central performances, which overcome a wobbly start to find emotional balance by the final reel.

Easier to respect than embrace, Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) tells its true-life story with understatement and features sturdy performances from Benicio del Toro and Mathieu Amalric. But this somewhat clinical look at the unlikely therapy sessions that took place between a French anthropologist and a traumatized Native American war veteran in 1947 feels hemmed in by its approach. You sense that French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin wants to avoid the feel-good clich├ęs associated with such a movie, but his alternative is tasteful but also a little too muted.

Desplechin’s recent films (Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale) have been overflowing, emotional, occasionally campy affairs, so at first Jimmy P.’s somber technique is a welcome change of pace—not to mention appropriate to the story. Based on the book Reality and Dream, which was written by the aforementioned anthropologist, George Devereux, the movie chronicles the plight of a member of the Blackfoot tribe, Jimmy Picard (del Toro), who started developing hearing loss, vision problems and dizzy spells after returning to America from World War II. Visiting a top military clinic in Topeka, Kansas, Picard is initially diagnosed with schizophrenia—after all, there’s nothing physiologically wrong with him—but the doctors decide to contact Devereux (Amalric) because of his psychoanalytic background and his close study of North American tribes.

The heart of Jimmy P. centers on the two men’s sessions, as Devereux begins a dialogue with Picard that uncovers layers of buried resentments and regrets. Like most films of its ilk, Jimmy P. is a sort of mystery, with Devereux trying to understand precisely what it is in Picard’s subconscious that has triggered these outward symptoms. Although there are discoveries and surprises, the movie is less concerned with some inspirational “breakthrough” than it is in exploring the two characters. In other words, Jimmy P. takes an Oscar-friendly Hollywood genre and tries to strip away the sentimentality.

The prosaic, marquee-challenging title tells mostly all in the case of “Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian),” Arnaud Desplechin’s profoundly Freudian study of loss and healing in post-WWII America, as seen through the experience of a dynamic shrink and his prize Native American patient. Largely a two-hander for stars Benicio Del Toro and Mathieu Amalric, both working at the top of their craft, this demanding but highly absorbing closeup on the analyst/analysand relationship seems sure to earn a warmer reception than the iconoclastic French auteur’s previous foray into English-lingo period filmmaking (with 2000’s unfairly maligned “Esther Kahn”). Pic’s highly specialized subject matter, however, presents a significant sales and marketing challenge, especially for distribs still licking their wounds from last year’s similar-themed “The Master.”

Sporting one of the more unusual literary sources ever adapted into a feature film, the pic draws its inspiration from “Reality and Dream,” a book-length case study by the ethnologist and psychoanalyst Georges Devereux (played by Amalric) about his treatment of one James Picard (Del Toro), a Blackfoot Indian whom Devereux encountered at Topeka’s famed Menninger Clinic in 1948. But as adapted by Desplechin, together with co-screenwriters Julie Peyr and Kent Jones, “Jimmy P.” constantly searches for — and finds — cinematic equivalents for Devereux’s clinical language.

The early scenes, set in Montana, show the former Army Cpl. Picard suffering from blinding headaches and dizzy spells possibly related to a skull fracture he suffered during his service. Initially taken to a Topeka military hospital by his concerned sister (an excellent Michelle Thrush), Picard is soon transferred to the nearby Menninger Clinic, where he stymies the staff by showing perfectly normal brain activity. Counting only one other Native American among their patients, the good Dr. Menninger (Broadway vet Larry Pine) decides to call in a specialist, choosing Devereux for his extensive knowledge of Indian life, including two years doing fieldwork with the Mojave.

In Arnaud Desplechin's English-language Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian), Benicio Del Toro—freed at last from the tyranny of playing bit-part heavies in American thrillers and action movies—is James Picard, a Blackfoot Indian who has lost his way in post-World War II America. He's a veteran, but he's treated like an outsider in his own country. He suffers devastating headaches and bouts of blindness. And he drinks too much, which doesn't help anything. Sounds like a job for … French genius pixie Mathieu Amalric, playing Hungarian-born ethnologist and psychoanalyst George Devereux, the man assigned to treat Picard at Topeka's Menninger Clinic in 1948.

This is a superb, engrossing picture, strange in all the right ways, and I long to see it again. Jimmy P. is based on Devereaux's book Reality and Dream, and though the picture is very much unlike any movie Desplechin has made before (aside from the fact that it's the fifth time he and Amalric have worked together), it shows the Desplechin touch—it's structured in a way that feels slightly meandering, though by the end, the main characters' inner lives have drifted into clear focus.

Not as well known as he should be outside of France, writer-director Arnaud Desplechin has had a high profile at home ever since his uneven but rewarding feature debut ‘La Sentinelle’ in 1992. That assessment – uneven but rewarding – might be applied to a career that takes in the meandering but mostly marvellous ‘My Sex Life... Or How I Got into an Argument’, the ambitious but fairly dire ‘Esther Kahn’, or the fine but flawed ‘Kings and Queen’ and ‘A Christmas Tale’.

Central to most of Desplechin’s work has been the actor Mathieu Amalric, who in ‘Jimmy P’ plays Georges Devereux, an anthropologist and psychoanalyst with a special interest in Native Americans. In the late 1940s, he meets Jimmy Picard (Benicio Del Toro), a Blackfoot Indian suffering a range of disorders since returning to Montana from the war in Europe. When Devereux, a Hungarian Jew passing himself off as a Frenchman, is invited to a Kansas military hospital by doctors who are at a loss to decide whether Picard's problems are pyschological or physical, a friendship begins to develop as the two men delve into the patient’s past.

Jimmy P, which is indeed about the psychotherapy of a Native American man shortly after the end of the Second World War, is the first real clunker in the main competition this year at Cannes. It's such a dud that it requires some explanation as to how it made the cut.

Jimmy, a Native American Blackfoot, suffered a head injury while serving in the war. Suffering from spells of dizziness and blindness and acute headaches, he goes to be treated at Topeka Military Hospital in Kansas – where no physical cause is found. The hospital's genial director calls in a friend from New York, Georges Devereux, a French (in fact, Jewish Hungarian) anthropologist and unqualified Freudian therapist. Over a period of weeks, Devereux sympathetically helps Jimmy explore his dreams, own up to his troubled family relations and respect his identity as a Native American – and Jimmy leaves the hospital a much happier man.

For his part, Devereux wins tenure as a result of this success, and also enjoys a visit from his married mistress (Gina McKee). Jimmy P properly appreciates his psychotherapy. "I'm glad I met you. You kept your promises - thank you", he says. As for Devereux, he sagely pronounces, as they part: "Anyone who is at peace with himself is at peace with others."

Benicio del Toro (who has some Native American ancestry but is very visibly mainly Hispanic) plays Jimmy pretty proficiently, at first occluded and troubled, then opening up and standing tall, all the while speaking in a strange clipped accent. As Devereux (on whose 1951 memoir Reality and Dream this "true story" movie is based), Matthieu Amalric is ever so continental, ridiculously bright-eyed and sparky, intuitive and wise. Gina McKee, meanwhile, is foxy and irrelevant. The movie is lamely scripted and agonizingly slow.

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