Tourists strolling down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles are sometimes startled to encounter a building with a sign that reads “Psychiatry: An Industry Of Death.” It’s a museum run by Scientologists, full of crackpot ideas… but they have a point when it comes to movies, in which psychiatry really is, if not death, at least almost universally destructive. Nothing is more inimical to drama than characters being verbally prodded to uncover the source of their trauma; in essence, the on-screen therapist is urging the protagonist to narrate their backstory, thereby creating a tedious subtext-free zone. Even a filmmaker as aggressively eclectic as Arnaud Desplechin (Kings & Queen, A Christmas Tale) couldn’t find a way to avoid this sinkhole. His latest effort, Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian, is about as thrilling as its title suggests—a series of earnest conversations that play like the case study from which they were adapted.
Casting two great actors as doctor and patient helps a little. Benicio Del Toro (who’s primarily Puerto Rican, though he’s claimed some Native American ancestry in interviews) plays the title role, Jimmy Picard, a Blackfoot man suffering from crippling headaches after being injured in World War II. Sent to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, where it’s determined that his problem is psychological rather than physical, he’s treated by the irrepressible Georges Devereux (Mathieu Amalric), who wants to hear all about his dreams, his mother, his sex life—the usual Freudian guff. Jimmy is skeptical at first, but warms up to Devereux slowly, as they talk and talk and talk some more. The medical community, meanwhile, is astonished to learn, via Devereux’s account of their sessions, that Native Americans have the same feelings, phobias, and neuroses as anybody else, and are not simply impassive and stoic by nature.
In many respects, Jimmy P. feels like an argument being made by proponents of therapy who want to demonstrate how the process ideally works. The film is nearly devoid of the sense of mystery and wonder that usually permeates Desplechin’s work, and features only a meager handful of his signature expressionistic interludes (notably, as in Kings & Queen, the unexpectedly emotional reading of a letter). It does serve, however, as a fascinating contrast in mannered acting styles. Del Toro plays Jimmy with a nearly catatonic lack of affect, which doesn’t exactly play to the actor’s strengths; at times, he could be auditioning for the part of Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Amalric, feeling the void, attempts to compensate, Nicholson-style, with a panoply of hammy, birdlike twitches, often looking more like the mental patient he played in Kings & Queen than like a noted psychiatrist. If one could somehow combine these two individuals into a single person, the result might resemble a credible human being. What’s more, since he would have nobody to talk to, the movie would then be forced to, you know, move.