Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian)

Ethno-Therapy at the O.K. Corral

October 1, 2013By Michael SommersWithout Category
Paris Update Jimmy P
Benicio del Toro and Mathieu Amalric in “Jimmy P.”

Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian), French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin’s first foray into American territory, was shot on location in the Midwest, entirely in English, with a Considerable Hollywood Star – the charismatic Benicio del Toro – in the title role.

Jimmy Picard (based on a real person) is a Blackfoot Indian who returns from World War II with a nasty case of what seems to be PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) caused by a brain injury. Wracked by headaches and blackouts, he shows up in 1948 at a Topeka veteran’s hospital, where none of the kindly but confused doctors is quite sure how to treat him on account of the fact that Jimmy P. is… well… “a red man.”

Enter Georges Devereux, another historical figure (who wrote the book the film is based on), played by French actor Mathieu Amalric. Devereux was a beguiling if bewildering figure whose multifaceted identity seems to overwhelm the film (and Amalric’s interpretation of the role). Born Jewish in Romania as Gyorgy Dobó, Devereux assumed his new name in the early 1930s when he became a French citizen (and converted to Catholicism). In the 1940s, he migrated to the United States (after acquiring U.S. citizenship, Devereux also fought in World War II, a fact that is not mentioned in the film).

Devereux’s professional life was no less peripatetic. He worked in bookstores and publishing, and studied music, chemistry and Far Eastern languages before becoming an anthropologist – and a psychoanalyst. Only this final paradox – that of a man who discovered Freud while analyzing the dreams of Mohave Indians in Arizona – is even close to adequately explained in the film; in fact, it provides the crux of Jimmy P.’s narrative. As alluded to in the film’s subtitle, Devereux was a pioneer in the field of “ethno-psychoanalysis,” and Jimmy P. was one of his first – and most famous – guinea pigs.

Even accepting the fact that a film about therapy necessarily involves a lot of dialog, one still hopes that the “talkiness” will somehow be compelling – especially when the talk in question is in a French film (Eric Rohmer anyone?), the original premise is based on a fascinating real-life story, and the roles of patient and shrink are played by a pair of actors as different and interesting as Del Toro and Amalric.

Unfortunately, none of these “especially”s pans out, and the problem isn’t just the excessive talkiness of the film – an aspect compounded by the fact that while Del Toro’s physically imposing Jimmy P. enunciates each word in monotonous staccato – “I AM A PLAINS INDIAN” – Amalric’s excessively impish Devereux comes off like a French-accented elf on crystal meth.

Jarring (and warring) accents aside, while the men talk reams in each other’s presence, they never really engage in any conflict or even connect in any deep way that we can see. There’s no climax or anticlimax, just talk. And so, even though this story is one you don’t come across every day, you find yourself in that slightly guilty and frustrating predicament of hoping the credits will roll sooner rather than later.

Ultimately, however, perhaps the biggest problem with Jimmy P. is America. Or rather, the persistent French vision of a certain mythical America. This was made clear to me when I took post-cinematic refuge in French movie critics’ reviews of Jimmy P. I guess I was hoping for some sort of catharsis, some clues to help make sense of such an underwhelming film. Instead, I was further stumped by review after review that raved about it as a “moving ode to fraternity” and an “heir to… the American cinema of John Ford.” (Pierre Murat in Télérama).

Even the usually skeptical/cynical Inrockuptibles couldn’t resist rhapsodizing about Desplechin’s paean to the America “of the Cheyennes and epics of dignity and manhood in the sense of both humanity and virile maturity… John Ford isn’t far away.” (Luc Chessel).

Ahhh, John Ford. I’ve seen a few Ford films in my time, and the hugely talented director certainly knew a thing or two about depicting an America that was mythical – but also grounded in dusty reality. As luck (or the Cinema Gods) would have it, a few nights after seeing Jimmy P., I caught a showing of My Darling Clementine (1946) on TCM. Like Jimmy and George, Clementine’s main masculine duo of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Doc Holliday (Victore Mature) are outsiders, both of whom struggle with communications issues and don’t seem the most likely of buddies. And yet, with a fraction of the dialog used by their modern counterparts (although a lot more whisky shots and gunshots), the protagonists of Ford’s Wild West bromance make a much more searing impression than Desplechin’s desultory anti-heroes.

Whether or not Desplechin has a Ford fixation, he certainly tries hard to inject Jimmy P. with (dissonant) Western notes: snippets of rugged Montana wilderness; dreams in which Indians appear in traditional garb; Jimmy’s escape to a saloon where he drinks (and womanizes) until he drops. But to what end (aside from providing French film critics with opportunities to trot out John Ford parallels)?

Just because Jimmy P. happens to be a Blackfoot (albeit a blue-collar one who wears suits and doesn’t know much about his own culture) and much of the film’s (in)action takes place in the Midwest (in the interior of a Topeka hospital), that doesn’t make Jimmy P. a Western.

Both Desplechin and the French film critics seem to have forgotten an important element of John Ford’s best Westerns. Aside from tackling Big Themes like camaraderie, authority, outsiders, and the vastness and violence of America, they were also brash, full-bodied, visceral, and – most importantly – entertaining. Which Jimmy P., unfortunately, ain’t.


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