Show and Tell
By Max Nelson
Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian
Dir. Arnaud Desplechin, France, IFC Films
Unlike, say, surgery, psychoanalysis doesnâ€™t easily lend itself to cinema. It never arrives at any complete access to its object of study (the patientâ€™s private, closed-off mental life) and visually speaking, itâ€™s a much more static process: much of the analystâ€™s interpretational work comes down to semantics; to figuring out on the most basic level what the patient is saying (or trying to say). Every petty definitional quibble becomes a stumbling block, a glitch keeping two people from communicating freely, directly, transparently. Even so, this kind of verbal stand-off can make for fascinating viewing: thereâ€™s something transfixing about watching two faces exhaust themselves in synchronized stabs at coherence, each painfully aware of a contrast between the depth and pliability of inner experience and the relatively clumsy vocabulary available for its expression. How far inside the mind can words reach?
Arnaud Desplechinâ€™s Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian is a curious case: a scrupulously faithful adaptation of Georges Devereuxâ€™s influential work of psychology-cum-anthropology Reality and Dreams that toes a narrow, wobbly line between honoring and subverting traditional therapyâ€™s reliance on the spoken word. Devereux, a French-Hungarian renaissance man (his early career included, among other things, poetry, music, chemistry, and bookselling) who could hold forth at equal length about Freudian dream-analysis and Mohave burial rites, came to Topeka in 1946 to work with the celebrated psychiatrist Karl Menninger at the latterâ€™s clinic for war veterans. In his book, he cites the clinicâ€™s initial referral message: â€śWe have an Indian patient, who, in terms of our usual criteria, may conceivably be psychotic. At the same timeâ€¦ he may merely be an Indian, whose personality makeup and behavior we do not fully understand.â€ť
Those lines, along with many of the subsequent sessions held between Devereux and his unnamed patient (alias James Picard), turn up practically verbatim in Jimmy Pâ€”and, all things considered, the transition between mediums is surprisingly smooth. (Much of this is down to the filmâ€™s fluid, intelligent screenplay, which Desplechin co-wrote with Julie Peyr and Kent Jones.) At its best, Jimmy P is a chance to see two terrific actors propose two very different strategies for working throughâ€”and withâ€”language. Thereâ€™s Mathieu Amalric as Devereux, shooting out mellifluous flurries of words in a state of constant, edgy excitement, and Benicio del Toro carefully stringing one syllable to the next in response as if each were its own leap of faith. (â€śMy thoughtsâ€¦ theyâ€™reâ€”allâ€”mixedâ€”up.â€ť) If Amalric/Devereux is concerned with synthesizing each word into a graceful, unified whole, del Toro/Jimmy goes after meaning in the opposite direction, breaking each sentence down to its blunt-edged atomic parts. Watching both approaches bounce off one another is thrilling, and would probably be enough to sustain a feature on its own.
More often, though, we see del Toroâ€™s monologuesâ€”a mixture of reality and dreamâ€”play out in a traditional flashback-voiceover mode: Jimmy struggling with a faceless, overalled assassin; undergoing a traumatic first sexual experience in a hayloft at the hands of an older teenage girl; staring down a newborn infant on a barren hillside; hunting foxes with a dream-Devereux; sprinting through a wide-open field after seeing his mother in another manâ€™s arms; standing in a small patch of brilliant flowers on an otherwise newly mowed plain. These are beautifully assembled sequences, and when paired with Howard Shoreâ€™s orchestral score, they take on a classical, Old Hollywood tint. (At one point midfilm, Desplechin sends Devereux and Jimmy to an old-fashioned movie house for a screening of John Fordâ€™s Young Mr. Lincoln.) But thereâ€™s a sense in which these sequences also do an injustice to the filmâ€™s source text. They suggest that the camera has a kind of privileged access to Jimmyâ€™s psyche; that moving images can give directly what finger-paintings, diagnostic tests, and all those words, words, words can only hint at: a precise account of whatâ€™s going on inside this manâ€™s head. Itâ€™s often hard to see what new information these visualizations are adding, and easy to see what theyâ€™re taking away: the visual drama of del Toro and Amalricâ€™s verbal exchanges.
Another way of putting all this is that, as depicted here, Jimmyâ€™s psyche simply doesnâ€™t go very deep. For all Devereuxâ€™s reminders that psychotherapy is a lifelong process; that relapses are healthy, etc., the filmâ€™s ending is strikingly clean: Jimmy feels his symptoms peter out, receives a mystifyingly simple diagnosis (psychic trauma, or, as Devereux calls it in a rare moment of half-condescension, â€śsoul painâ€ť), has a happy one-night fling, and reaches out to his estranged daughter. Another example of Desplechinâ€™s textual fidelity, maybe: Reality and Dream ends on an equally contented note. (â€śAt this point,â€ť Devereux concludes, â€śthe objective demands of reality merge and become compatible with the subjective need for a magical mastery of reality; archaic and infantile attitudes, now handled in an adult manner, become sources of strength, and the patient is enabled to lead a constructive life without ceasing to be himself.â€ť) Maybe, too, Jimmy Pâ€™s last-act bow-tying is another of the filmâ€™s many nods to American movie history. In its long stretches of charged talk, its sturdy, steel-lined compositions, and its final air of hard-won moral triumph, it seems cut from the same cloth as a film like 12 Angry Menâ€”but, also like that Sidney Lumet film, something about its gestures of self-satisfaction feels slightly unearned.
That said, there are still passages of Jimmy P that stay satisfyingly, richly unresolved. When Devereuxâ€™s lover Madeleine (Gina McKee) exits Topeka, she leaves a farewell letter that, distance be damned, we see her read aloud in a radiant frontal close-up: a strange cross between Brechtian third-wall-breaking and classical Hollywood exposition. Desplechin has mined this tension before, notably in Kings and Queenâ€”the raw, jittery, frayed ying to Jimmy Pâ€™s statelier yang. (Both films touch on the tie between mental health and the state of the soulâ€”thereâ€™s even a nod to Devereux in Kings and Queen, and a few lines of dialogue carried over word-for-word from the earlier film in Jimmy Pâ€”but Kings and Queen, with its frantic editing rhythms, bubble-bursting close-ups, and extreme tonal shifts, makes more emotional demands on its audience than Jimmy P ever intends to, or dares.) Madeleineâ€™s brief monologue isnâ€™t, stylistically speaking, a radical departure from the rest of Jimmy P, but it is a subtle subversion: one of the few moments when this movieâ€”which has otherwise, for the most part, left us feeling like invisible spectators in a kind of psycho-surgical operating theaterâ€”turns and addresses us (accuses us?) head-on. Itâ€™s striking proof of Desplechinâ€™s ability to find an effective division of labor between the image and the word, in a film where their functions tend, sometimes redundantly, to overlap.