The prosaic, marquee-challenging title tells mostly all in the case of “Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian),” Arnaud Desplechin’s profoundly Freudian study of loss and healing in post-WWII America, as seen through the experience of a dynamic shrink and his prize Native American patient. Largely a two-hander for stars Benicio Del Toro and Mathieu Amalric, both working at the top of their craft, this demanding but highly absorbing closeup on the analyst/analysand relationship seems sure to earn a warmer reception than the iconoclastic French auteur’s previous foray into English-lingo period filmmaking (with 2000’s unfairly maligned “Esther Kahn”). Pic’s highly specialized subject matter, however, presents a significant sales and marketing challenge, especially for distribs still licking their wounds from last year’s similar-themed “The Master.”
Sporting one of the more unusual literary sources ever adapted into a feature film, the pic draws its inspiration from “Reality and Dream,” a book-length case study by the ethnologist and psychoanalyst Georges Devereux (played by Amalric) about his treatment of one James Picard (Del Toro), a Blackfoot Indian whom Devereux encountered at Topeka’s famed Menninger Clinic in 1948. But as adapted by Desplechin, together with co-screenwriters Julie Peyr and Kent Jones, “Jimmy P.” constantly searches for — and finds — cinematic equivalents for Devereux’s clinical language.
The early scenes, set in Montana, show the former Army Cpl. Picard suffering from blinding headaches and dizzy spells possibly related to a skull fracture he suffered during his service. Initially taken to a Topeka military hospital by his concerned sister (an excellent Michelle Thrush), Picard is soon transferred to the nearby Menninger Clinic, where he stymies the staff by showing perfectly normal brain activity. Counting only one other Native American among their patients, the good Dr. Menninger (Broadway vet Larry Pine) decides to call in a specialist, choosing Devereux for his extensive knowledge of Indian life, including two years doing fieldwork with the Mojave.
In his fifth collaboration with Desplechin (who has typically cast him as characters in, or in dire need of, therapy themselves), Amalric here gets a bonafide star entrance, the camera dollying in on an unseen figure puffing smoke behind a newspaper in a Brooklyn bar. The excitable Devereux is quite literally waiting on Menninger’s call and happily hops on the next train heading West, where his supposed one-shot consultancy on the Picard case evolves into the series of lengthy analysis sessions. Picard is, in Devereux’s estimation, suffering from “what we all suffer from,” and that it is the damaged man’s soul — not his skull — that is in true need of repair.
While onscreen therapy is hardly a novelty in the era of “The Sopranos,” “In Treatment” and David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” few films have focused so intently on the minutiae of psychoanalysis as Desplechin does here — an uncompromising strategy that will undoubtedly distance some viewers while drawing others further in. As doctor accompanies patient on a tour of childhood traumas, oedipal complexes and abandonment issues, Desplechin and cinematographer Stephane Fontaine imaginatively render the journey as a series of waking dreams, Devereux and Picard walking about inside the latter’s mind like audience members at a most unusual picture show.
Among their other virtues, the scenes between Amalric and Del Toro bristle with an energetic contrast in personalities and acting styles, as the jittery, irrepressible Devereux slowly coaxes the stoic, monosyllabic Picard out of his shell. At first, Del Toro seems to be working in an extremely narrow range, but his ability to show the subtlest of gradations in Picard’s gradually improving condition becomes one of the quiet astonishments of this impeccable performance. Occasionally, Desplechin breaks away from his intense central focus to show Devereux’s interactions with other Menninger staff and his visiting married mistress (well played by Gina McKee), but “Jimmy P.” is never better than when its two leads share the screen, a relationship all the more resonant and moving for Desplechin’s refusal to make it cutesy or contrived. (“Awakenings” this certainly isn’t, even if a breakthrough does loom at the end of the long, dark night.)
Like Picard, Devereux is himself something of a stranger in a strange land, a Hungarian-born Jew who has come to the U.S. via Paris, but who remains very much unmoored, looking for a place to call home. That he should find it in the flatlands of Kansas evinces Desplechin’s abiding belief in the power of not only therapy, but America itself as a wellspring of new beginnings.
Topnotch work by production designer Dina Goldman and costume designer David C. Robinson adds to the pic’s polished period look, while the moody, melodramatic original score by Howard Shore enhances as many scenes as it threatens to drown out.