The clunkily titled Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (aka Jimmy P.) is Arnaud Desplechin‘s first film in a whole five years, though disappointingly proves a shakily uneven return for the director, entrenched in the more laborious, bone-dry methodology of its famous case study rather than probing the complex emotional state of the titular character. Resolutely a work of special interest and little else, of all the In Competition entries to screen so far, this is the one that can most easily be ruled out of the running for the Palme d’Or.
The true story on which this film is based revolves around Jimmy Picard (Benicio Del Toro), a Blackfoot Indian who returns from service in World War II and begins suffering from headaches, sight loss and countless other ailments. While American doctors are quick to diagnose him as mentally ill, it is the arrival of anthropologist-turned-psychiatrist Georges Devereau (Mathieu Amalric) that changes everything, as he manages to unlock past traumas in Jimmy’s life to arrive at the root of the problem.
In adapting Devereau’s famous book “Reality and Dream,” Desplechin is evidently keen to dig into the more nascent stages of psychology, ahead of it becoming the respected scientific discipline we recognise it as today. However, like other recent attempts to do this (David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method first comes to mind here) the result is unexpectedly sexless and really quite dull. Getting through the film in one piece will likely require audiences to have at least a passing interest in the subject matter, and those who do should appreciate the wry, unassuming wit at the heart of the piece in the very least.
Best conceding the intellectual merits of the piece is Amalric, who is a hoot as the eccentric anthopologist-cum-psychiatrist, completely surrendering the film’s subversive, satirical bent. One scene in which he psychoanalyzes Jimmy’s paintings is sure to raise many guffaws, and Devereau’s remarks in this instance are clearly not intended to be taken dead seriously. There’s little point denying the interesting nature of the case, meanwhile, though it is also one best considered with a healthy air of skepticism, as some might argue it is a smart way to regard much psychology in general. Still, plenty of tension can be derived from the wide-eyed exchanges between doctor and patient, if ultimately a testament more to the performances than anything else. Speaking of which, Amalric’s thoroughly charming countenance generates a natural contrast with Del Toro’s nervous, anguished tics throughout, making the simple dialogues between the two really pop.
However, Devereau is also a powerful conduit through which one of the film’s most perfunctory subplots is shot — his romance with a married woman (Gina McKee) that adds very little to our understanding of the central case or Devereau as a person. Furthermore, Jimmy’s back story unfurls in the most procedural and expository of means, making the revelations less satisfying and feel more like a lazy inevitability to propel the story forward. To this end, the narrative momentum runs out long before film’s close, and Desplechin fails to engage our emotions despite the tragedy of the situation, his sterile approach denying both his characters and the audience visceral agency.
The closing notions of soul pain and America’s dark historical past are certainly thought-provoking, though barely touched upon within the scope of the narrative, a disservice to these talented actors, especially Amalric, above all else.
The Upside: Sumptuously mounted visuals and a collective of impressive performances push Jimmy’s tale through with the maximum enthusiasm.
The Downside: Desplechin’s first film in 5 years isn’t exactly a belter, more a literate interpretation of the source material that will enjoy a short life as a festival curio before likely fading into obscurity.
On the Side: Mathieu Amalric most famously worked with Desplechin by playing a mental patient in the director’s Kings and Queen.