Monday, March 10, 2014

Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian

France  (117 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Arnaud Desplechin

This is one of the more puzzling films seen in awhile, where the people involved in the making of the film are highly respected, yet this is not the typically appealing dramatic effort with quirky characters and sweeping conversational dialogue that dominates other Desplechin films, yet the entirety of the film’s narrative feels like one long, prolonged dialogue where there’s a flat, unengaging dramatic feel that is often tedious.  One of the select competition films at Cannes, this is a confounding experience, and a bit peculiar, as you really don’t know if the film is good or bad, but it’s a somewhat troubling experience to follow, where there are really no guidelines, where you’d think this could be an experimental film, but it’s not.  All along it feels underwritten, where secondary characters never materialize into something more, yet this is a film that glorifies the power of conversational dialogue, where words actually mean something, more than in typical movies, yet the viewer is scratching their head trying to comprehend what’s so significant about what we hear.  Based on a true story in the late 40’s, Benicio Del Toro is Jimmy Picard, a Blackfoot Indian who suffers blackouts, an army corporal who returns from the war with severe, debilitating headaches, where despite a crack in his skull, doctors at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, the army’s leading psychiatric hospital, are at a loss to figure out the source of Picard’s problems, especially after his tests turn up normal, showing nothing is physically wrong with him.  So he’s pushed into the psychiatric ward where a committee of doctors all conclude they’ve never treated a Native American patient before, wondering if there might be unique aspects to his culture that might explain some of his irrational behavior, so they call upon an eccentric Jewish psychoanalyst from Europe, Georges Devereux (Mathieu Amalric), a Frenchman currently living in New York, known more for his work as an anthropologist, having spent two years living in the desert studying the Mojave Indians, where his methods are considered unorthodox. 

An isolated patient who is believed to be schizophrenic and psychotic, who refuses to talk to anyone else in the military psychiatric hospital, suddenly blossoms in the company of this one particular therapist who takes a more holistic approach, as he’s interested in the Indian tribe where he comes from, where that knowledge can open up clues that introduce a completely new understanding of the patient’s condition, where he’s not psychotic at all, but simply isolated and misdiagnosed, as Indians are not in the habit of confessing their opinions and personal feelings to white people.  Inspired by Devereaux’s book Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, the story itself is fascinating, where the film becomes a meticulous, near clinical exposé, mostly the retelling of dreams, where instead of imaginative, dreamlike imagery, the film retains a near scientific guideline for the narrative to unravel, usually downplayed, where the film is likely to be a virtual recreation of the literary work, taking few liberties, and in spite of superior acting talent, the film presents the material as straightforward as possible.  Del Toro, who is Puerto Rican, has made a career playing some version of the non-white character, where this role is reminiscent of his earlier work playing a mentally challenged Indian in Sean Penn’s The Pledge (2001), a role that apparently landed him this job.  In each he speaks barely decipherable English, expanding the physical component to the roles where his burly physique actually matches a similar character in Milos Forman’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975), which curiously features a completely silent but large Indian man locked up in the psychiatric ward with nothing apparently wrong with him other than he’s lost the will to act, so he sits quietly among the disturbed patients and makes no judgments until the end, when he decides it’s better living as a free man on the outside. What’s also interesting in each is the European take on what are distinctly American stories, where Forman was one of the most important directors of the Czechoslovak New Wave, while Desplechin is a worthy heir to the French New Wave, whose films often feature some of the best French actors working today.  In some ways, this cultural twist becomes part of the narrative storyline, as Jimmy and Georges are both seen as exiled, though they deal with it differently, as both are a long way from “home.” 

For Europeans, for instance, the Indian is still a mythical figure, known largely from what was told to them by whites, where this film offered the director a chance to explore deeper into what is admittedly unknown territory.  While much of this may feel academic, as Jimmy continually recounts what he can recall from dreams and from his childhood, where mostly Georges listens and engages his patient by taking an interest, where he is genuinely concerned about his welfare, which in turn makes the patient take more of an interest in himself.  Using a swirling Hollywood musical score by Howard Shore, but also the superb miniature poetry from the first two sections of Debussy’s Petite Suite, Claude Debussy - En Bateau - YouTube (3:14) and Claude Debussy Petite Suite : Cortège piano - YouTube (3:24), the film was shot mostly in the state of Michigan and Montana, where there is fluidity to the past melding with the present, as the headaches begin to occur less frequently, suggesting they are on the right track.  There are a few detours along the road where Jimmy heads for the nearest bar to commiserate about his troubles, but what’s interesting is that it’s a bar that includes Indians, something rarely shown in American pictures.  What this really amounts to is a buddy picture, something along the lines of Gene Hackman and Al Pacino in Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW (1973), a couple of unlikely outsiders that end up hitchhiking on the road together, developing an unusual rapport that touched a nerve with the American counterculture at the time.  This is a much smaller film where one Indian’s mental collapse is symptomatic for what was done to the entire Native American population, all driven off their land by the U.S. cavalry in the late 19th century and herded to isolated reservations in the middle of nowhere with little to no resources to survive, often the poorest places to live in the entire United States, where one of the currently existing side effects of this involuntary exile are the highest rates of alcoholism and suicide, reflective of the mental, psychological, and economic depression.  While this film is not a history lesson, it simply shows interest in the life of a single Indian, where the interest is in Devereaux’s recollection of every single word of dialogue from those sessions, never resorting to broad gestures, cinematic gimmicks, or adding dramatic embellishments, instead trusting the significance of the material as being historically authentic.  While we’re not normally privy to the secret confines of therapy sessions, this film targets the often undiagnosed pain and sadness that accompany the human condition, where it takes some soul searching to find the underlying causes of physical breakdown, trauma, and dysfunction, where in this case 65% of returning World War II veterans were mentally injured, yet few received any treatment.  

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