Film of the Week: Jimmy P.
“Don’t be exuberant!” a doctor cautions Mathieu Amalric’s character in Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian—futilely, of course, as Amalric carries on giving, to put it mildly, one of the most exuberant performances of his career. But perhaps the warning is also a note-to-self by Arnaud Desplechin, a director noted for a stylistic exuberance that sometimes verges on mannerism. I must confess that Desplechin is a filmmaker whose voice has somehow eluded me in the past, both in terms of the specifics of his style, and the question of what preoccupies him: yes, relationships, families, people’s indecisiveness, all that sort of thing, but the matter of what Desplechin is really interested in and why somehow has never connected with me. I’ve liked some of his films, particularly the anomalous period piece Esther Kahn (00), and parts of others—My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument (96) feels to me more like an anthology of episodes than an organic film. But we all have blind spots that we can’t explain, and Desplechin has generally been one of mine: on some level, to do with his voice or my taste, I don’t quite get him.
So, in warming quite a lot to Jimmy P, it’s possible that I’ve gravitated to what Desplechin’s long-term admirers might regard as the wrong film. But the simplicity of it, the way that he restrains (some might say: censors) his usual exuberance, is what makes it interesting. This is, in any case, a film about repression and its effects.
The story is drawn from life and based on a case history described by the Hungarian-born anthropologist Georges Devereux (né György Dobó) in his 1951 book Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. Devereux’s patient was James Picard, a Blackfoot Native American from Browning, Montana, who had incurred a fractured skull fighting in France in World War II. He was admitted to the Winter Hospital in Topeka, Kansas for seemingly inexplicable symptoms including dizzy spells and temporary blindness. In Desplechin’s version of the story, Picard (played by Benicio Del Toro) is welcomed with open arms by the Topeka doctors, but it’s clear that they understand neither him nor his case: “Behold our Indian brave!” smiles chief medic Dr. Karl Menninger (Larry Pine) as Picard enters the room—one of the more benign among several instances of casual racism that Picard encounters throughout the story.
At first, the doctors think that Picard, who is otherwise in perfect health, may be schizophrenic—but there’s another possibility, that he is “simply an Indian, whose personality and behavior we do not fully understand” (and why should they, given that Picard doesn’t understand them himself?). To treat him, the hospital brings in Devereux, an expert who's effectively as alien to the American health system as the patient himself. As an anthropologist specializing in Native American culture, Devereux appears to be the man for the job, although he’s not traditionally qualified to administer a course of psychoanalysis—and while it’s not entirely clear from the film that psychoanalysis proper is what Picard undergoes, that’s what seems to be taking place. Oh, and it’s perhaps Desplechin’s boldest move in the film to put the word “psychoanalysis” in his title: you have to admire a filmmaker who can be so cavalier about box-office common sense.
Picard’s arrival at Topeka, and the brief prelude to it, set up the main body of the film, which is a series of dialogues between Picard and Devereux, increasingly opening up to admit flashbacks to Picard’s past and glimpses of his dreams. It’s the formal restraint of the sober, contemplative dialogues that, by contrast, give the dreams their special charge, and some of these sequences are terrifically haunting, little explosions of imagistic strangeness: Picard’s fight with a faceless figure, in his own “struggle with the angel,” as it were; a bear hunt, the bear being manifestly a stuffed one looming out of darkness; and the sudden gorgeous filling of the screen by a field of multicolored flowers.
As well as the images, key to Picard’s analysis is the Mojave language, Devereux’s knowledge of which encourages his patient to trust him and open up. Picard’s Indian name, we learn, means “Everybody Talks About Him” (which is appropriate to Picard’s clinical diagnosis, since he becomes the subject of the discourse of others). And Picard is surprised that Devereux is conversant with a key epithet applied to women, meaning “manly-hearted”: the adjective is used to describe the patient’s mother and sister alike.
What emerges from Picard’s analysis is almost disappointingly simple. He has trouble with women, displaced into symptoms of bodily trouble with himself, all stemming from unresolved family relationships—his mother, the daughter he has barely known, and the child’s mother. The interesting thing is that Picard himself, although it’s never said explicitly, emerges as what you might call a “womanly-hearted man”: a figure of great gentleness, courtesy, and delicacy. It’s notable that he and Devereux—the cultured, physically delicate-seeming man of the mind—are very different in this respect. It’s Devereux who blithely volunteers that he has slapped women in his time (“It clears the air”) to which Picard responds that he could never hit a woman. And while Devereux comes across, in Amalric’s dandyish performance, as something of an Old World Lothario, Picard seems to have a fuller and more tender regard for women, even if they are the root cause of his anxiety. The scenes in which Picard meets and later courts a woman in Topeka suggest a tender, solicitous lover, while Devereux’s scenes with his inamorata Madeleine Steiner (Gina McKee), who comes for an extended visit, present a man somewhat narcissistically soaking up her admiration; in fact, McKee’s character only rarely emerges as more than a sounding board for Devereux’s ideas and effusions.
The film slightly overplays its opposition between the gentle, monolithic Picard and the manic, elfin energy of Devereux—in fact, looking at a still of the two men walking side by side, you can’t help thinking you’re seeing Of Mice and Men in best Sunday suits. The contrast between the two leads is certainly odd, sometimes awkward. Amalric at times wildly overstates Devereux’s Eastern European “nutty professor” side, not without Desplechin’s collusion: he’s first seen in a diner, leaping up to answer a call from Menninger—“Vot’s new in Topeka?”—to a background of jumping jazz. As for Del Toro, he comparably overemphasizes the slow, measured rhythms of Picard’s damaged being. Some suspicions have been aired, since the film’s Cannes premiere last year, concerning Desplechin’s decision to cast a Puerto Rican, rather than a Native American, actor as Picard, and there may well be pragmatic funding reasons for the choice, although Desplechin has discussed his enthusiasm for Del Toro in an interview with FILM COMMENT. In fact, Del Toro is generally very sympathetic and effective here, and appealingly thoughtful, but his strangely inflected halting delivery is distracting; it’s hard to tell whether it’s meant to reflect Picard’s clinical condition or his origins, although none of the film’s other Indian characters—themselves played by Native American actors—speak remotely like this. You wonder whether Desplechin’s French-attuned ear is simply missing the strangeness of Del Toro’s performance.
But in saying this, I’m getting entangled in the web of cultural assumptions that the film undertakes to unpick. The film is, of course, about two men who are both in their own ways outsiders in official American society—in Devereux’s case, doubly so, as he’s a Hungarian who has reinvented himself as French to pursue a career abroad. Desplechin himself similarly does rather well as a “foreign expert” dealing with a difficult American case. Jimmy P is a French production, rather than American: French-funded but with a mixture of U.S. and French crew, including DP Stéphane Fontaine and composer Howard Shore, while Desplechin scripted the film with two co-writers, one French, one American: Julie Peyr and Film Comment’s own deputy editor Kent Jones.
Desplechin adopts an American identity just as Devereux/Dobó adopts a French one: if the film has a certain formal sobriety that at times approaches academicism, that’s because Desplechin seems to be aiming at a certain American cinema, of the simple, formal, somewhat monolithic kind best represented by recent Clint Eastwood films such as Changeling. His aim, in short, which he pulls off pretty honorably, could not be more French—to make un grand film américain.