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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.
The curtain opens on a ranch in Browning, Montana, where Jimmy Picard (Benicio Del Toro), a Blackfoot, lives with his sister and her family. He has returned from the war in France with debilitating headaches and bouts of blindness and hearing loss. As a veteran, he is taken for treatment to a progressive new medical facility in Topeka, Kansas, but after ruling out physical causes, the doctors uneasily diagnose him as a schizophrenic. Enter Georges Devereau (Mathieu Amalric), a bright-eyed little anthropologist called in by the enlightened medical staff to assess whether they just don’t understand Picard’s Indian psyche and behavior.
Though the best fictional analysts have generally been women — Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound, Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos – they have to move over to make room for Mathieu Amalric’s manic portrait of Devereau, who is shown as an ideal combination of anthropologist and psychoanalyst. Having lived among the Mohave Indians and learned their language and history, he is enthusiastic and curious about the customs of Jimmy’s tribe. Also, he’s the analyst everyone dreams of – penetrating, sympathetic, every word a direct hit. For once the dreary, cinematically overused drama of transference takes a back seat to pure intellectual detective work as he sets up a relaxed dialogue with his patient. Jimmy proves to be remarkably bright and soon picks up the method of free association to dig back into past psychic traumas.
Perhaps because there’s an actual case study behind the screenplay, adapted from Devereau’s book Reality and Dream by Desplechin, Julie Peyr and Kent Jones, it goes off in unexpected directions as Jimmy’s sharp mind ranges over his past. Happily, breaking another tedious film cliché, he doesn’t resist his doctor in the least and analysis rolls on briskly. Yes, there’s a traumatic Oedipal moment when little Jimmy sees his recently widowed mother in bed with another man, and on another occasion he gets a thrashing after being caught playing in the hay with a little girl. Then there’s the war and the accident in which he suffered a severe head injury. But ultimately, his greatest trauma involves his own mistreatment of his mistress and the daughter she bore him. Once that guilt is peeled away, a whole other level opens up of repressed anger over the prejudice and discrimination he is subject to as a Native American – another source of his blinding headaches.
In early scenes Del Toro devotes so much visible effort to acting the part that his performance is distracting, even off-putting. But as the film goes on, he becomes more natural in a complex role, leaving the viewer with the memory of a powerful and unusual mind, a man one would like to know. Amalric, who played a mental patient for Desplechin in Kings and Queen, is spectacularly likable in all his guises, except as the lover of a sophisticated married woman (Gina McKee) who comes out of nowhere and disappears in the same direction, leaving the audience to wonder what that was all about. Surely the screen time could have been put to better use sketching in some of the mysteries of this fascinating figure, a founder of ethno-anthropology.
One also has to query an excerpt of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, never connected to the story in any logical way.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition), May 18, 2013.
Production companies: Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, Orange Studio, France 2 Cinema, Herodiade, Le Pacte
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Mathieu Amalric, Gina McKee, Larry Pine, Joseph Cross, Elya Baskin, Gary Farmer, Michelle Thrush, Misty Upham
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Screenwriters: Arnaud Desplechin, Julie Peyr, Kent Jones based on a book by Georges Devereux
Director of photography: Stéphane Fontaine
Production designer: Dina Goldman
Costumes: David C. Robinson
Editor: Laurence Briaud
Music: Howard Shore
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
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