Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 23, 2013 5:42 pm 
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Just what the title says

Arnaud Desplechin's Jimmy P., Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (2013) seems a dubious enterprise. How can you base a movie on a shrink-patient relationship not involving a mafioso, Gandolfini, or De Niro? Mark Adams of Screen Daily thinks you can. He calls Desplechin's new film "An impressively nuanced and intriguingly un-showy drama," and " a film of subtle understatement." It resists, he says the "temptation to engage in overly dramatic flourishes" and provides "a solid platform for the charismatic talents of Benicio Del Toro and Mathieu Amalric, who deliver memorably mannered performances." Moreover this film has been well received in France, this auteur's home ground, where it got an Allociné press rating of 3.5.

Wait a minute, though. Do you want to watch almost two hours of two actors wearing wide Forties ties in Topeka delivering "memorably mannered performances" while they talk about a Native American's prewar hangups? Aren't those adjectives about being "un-showy" and "of subtle understatement" just cover words for dull? This is how Jimmy P. came across to me: dull, and inexplicable. Much has been made of Amalric's and Del Toro's "different acting styles," but mannered is mannered: they just both seem false. Amalric ain't a Hungarian Jew and Del Toro ain't a Plains Indian. They're a Frenchman (though of Hungarian Jewish ancestry) and a Puerto Rican. And Desplechin stakes his all on his two main actors, a big risk. He surely knew what he was getting with Amalric, who's in so many of his films, and is the analysand rather than the analyst in an early work, My Sex Life... (1996). Del Toro may have been largely on his own, and pretty lost.

Something may also have gotten lost in translation with the scenario. The film comes from a well-known book. Georges Devereux’s 1951 Reality And Dream, which is an exhaustive account of the French-Hungarian-Jewish anthropologist-therapist-Indian specialist's treatment of the Blackfoot vet Jimmy Picard. Picard came to Karl Menninger's Winter General Army Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, which was to become a great training ground for psychiatrists. He suffered from crippling symptoms, including terrible headaches, temporary blindness, hearing loss, jittery arm, and dizzy spells, but the specialists found nothing organically wrong and therefore at first concluded he was schizophrenic.

Devereux was called in from New York (to his delight; he had nothing to do and welcomed the project) even though he was not technically a doctor. His approach to Jimmy's problems was whollistic, and apparently successful: his patient's symptoms went away. Devereux had lived two years with the Navajo and learned their language and in discussing Jimmy's past he made constant, reassuring use of a knowledge of tribal structure, including male-female roles. Jimmy turned out to have various female issues all his life, starting with finding his mother in bed with a man not his father. He would not marry the mother of his daughter, and felt guilt over this. It's suggested by Mark Adams and the film itself that both men got therapy out of their hour a day together. What are we to make of the long visit by his Devereux's married lover Madeleine (Gina McKee)? It's inconclusive, tacked-on, and incomprehensible, as if there were some meaningful scenes that got left on the cutting room floor.

The mildly interesting but still rather plodding account of Jimmy's psychiatric voyage of healing self rediscovery (which includes occasional flashback restagings) lacks the kind of flashy drama we get, for instance, in Jung and Freud's pioneering treatment of the "hysterical" (and quite deranged) Sabina Spielrein, as depicted in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, or Charcot's treatment of an illiterate housemaid as shown in Alice Wincour's Augustine -- not that I'd recommend either of these films as depictions of psychotherapy. But is psychotherapy a good subject for a film? Some processes have to be elided or kept in the background, or, as in those two films, sensationalized, for them to come to life on screen.

Jimmy P. seems largely a misfire, a false step, for Desplechin, a bold experiment that grew out of his passion for the subject of psychotherapy and a temptation to dip his toes into American waters. Perhaps because he was in untried territory, he trods a timid, pedestrian path, slavishly following a book that's itself just a day to day record. It was in French, and translated into English by Kent Jones of the New York Film Society, where he's Associate Director of Programming of the Walter Reade Theater and Editor at Large of the society's organ Film Comment magazine. Which is to say this film is an offshoot of the New York Film Society itself, a case where the jurors of the Main Slate decided to order in. This reminds one of another NYFF vanity project that Benicio Del Toro was centrally involved in, Steven Soderbergh's Che. But while Soderbergh worked on a scale larger than he'd ever attempted before in that film, in this one Despechin narrows down his usual polyphonic approach, and the effect is a little bit claustrophobic.

Still Jimmy P. is arguably a more worthy film to be included in the NYFF than a comedy by Roger Mitchell or Richard Curtis. It seeks to be an original and experimental work. Desplechin is a worthy NYFF alumnus; his earlier films showed brilliance; this one has seriousness of purpose. However, Mike D'Angelo's Cannes tweet review gave it a 35 and said, "35. I was not expecting to leave this film thinking fondly of GOOD WILL HUNTING." In other words, the material winds up being thoroughly middlebrow, but flatter than Van Sant, and certainly than Cronenberg.

Jimmy P., Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian/Jimmy P. psychothérapie d'un indien des plaines, debuted at Cannes. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center.

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