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 clichés 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.
This refreshing strategy does bring with it some rewards. Focusing on process rather than results, Devereux and Picard meander around in the narrative, with Desplechin leaving the main story aside on occasion to include an intriguing subplot involving Devereux’s ongoing affair with a married woman (Gina McKee, radiating sexy adult sophistication) who comes by train from the East Coast to be with him. Consequently, this is a rambling, sometimes unfocused movie, one that is never exactly sharp or stunning but is engaging because of its off-kilter treatment of familiar material.
Del Toro has made a career playing tightly coiled men who could explode at any moment, and Picard is a fine addition to his collection. For most of Jimmy P., Picard is a gentle giant—he towers over the diminutive Devereux, an effect that’s both frightening and comical—but when assaulted by his physical problems or getting drunk, the animal within is unleashed. (And without overdoing it, Desplechin also reminds us that Picard is living in a time when Native Americans are experiencing consistent racism around them, even despite the fact that he’s a war hero.)
As his foil, Amalric can be a little cutesy—a common problem with him—but his skittish enthusiasm for understanding Picard’s malady makes him an engaging juxtaposition in energy from the stoic, lumbering Native American. Additionally, Amalric exudes such a huckster’s flair as Devereux that it leaves open the question of whether he’s entirely who he says he is, an assumption that turns out to be well-founded once we see him around his lover.
Jimmy P. can still fall into conventionality when it offers fantastical dream sequences and turgid flashbacks that hold the key to Picard’s pain. And while a clinical approach doesn’t disqualify a movie from being riveting, the straightforward, unflashy style can sometimes be draggy rather than revelatory or engrossing. Which is perhaps apt for the subject matter: In real life, therapy can sometimes be a fruitless, frustrating experience as you’re waiting for some insights to spring forth.
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Writers: Arnaud Desplechin, Julie Pyer, Kent Jones (screenplay); George Devereux (book)
Starring: Benicio del Toro, Mathieu Amalric, Gina McKee, Larry Pine
Release Date: Screening in the Official Competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival