Since my personal lockdown began back in March 2020, MUBI has proved to be my most reliable source of films to watch. I’m still not prepared to go back into cinemas, though I miss the big screen very much. It’s not the cinemas I mistrust but the crowds emboldened by the UK government’s chaotic policy decisions. So I’m staying online for now. I’ve tried many MUBI offerings and decided quite quickly that some aren’t for me, but many are and I’ve experienced many welcome surprises, none more so than Jimmy P., a title that I’d never noticed before and which doesn’t seem to have been released in UK cinemas, though a DVD and VOD version was made available in 2014.
This title is part of a MUBI strand titled ‘Cannes Takeover’, celebrating films from 70 years of Cannes Film Festival screenings. It was shown in competition for the Palme d’Or in 2013. Jimmy P. belongs to that often intriguing group of French films made in English in North America and presenting American stories. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin and based on the book Reality and Dream (1951) by Georges Devereux, it is an intriguing mixture of biopic, ‘buddy movie’, almost procedural study of a form of psychotherapy, and a drama about post-war late 1940s settlement for Native Americans – the ‘present’ is 1948 in Montana. Georges Devereux (1908-85) was an extraordinary figure. Born György Dobó as a Hungarian Jew, he moved to France after the First World War, changing his name and eventually losing any religious affiliation and gaining an education in first sciences and then languages. He could speak four languages as a child and went on to learn both Asian and Native American languages, spending time as an ethnographer and then as a psychiatrist.
Jimmy Picard is a Blackfoot who returns from the war in France to his sister’s farm in Montana but he can’t settle and she eventually gets him admitted to Winter Hospital for Veterans in Topeka, Kansas. The staff, who seem generally concerned to do their best for their patients, struggle to find what is wrong with Jimmy. Apart from some ailments that can be treated he doesn’t seem to be suffering physically and he doesn’t seem to be mentally ill, but he is uncommunicative and clearly not happy. Eventually they send for Devereux who arrives from the East on what seems a tenuous contract but he quickly succeeds in gaining Jimmy’s confidence and together they begin to explore his background and his dreams.
This film received some good reviews – in the US as well as Europe, but general audiences were not drawn to it. As is often the case for European films it failed to fulfil American expectations of an entertainment film. It did OK in France but must have lost money for its producers. There is a lot of ‘talk’ in the film and the narrative refuses to follow the familiar triumphant arc of ‘therapy dramas’. None of this worried me. I was engaged from the start, particularly by the performances. Jimmy is played by Benicio Del Toro. In one sense it is a shame that a Native American actor was not cast in the role but Del Toro is remarkably good in the role. He speaks slowly and sometimes haltingly but with real conviction and intelligence. This is definitely not a typical Hollywood version of a Native American character. Devereux is played by Desplechin regular Mathieu Amalric. At first I thought he might be pushing his performance too far into the eccentric presentation of an unconventional scientist. But Amalric holds the line and displays Devereux’s humanity as well as his behavioural quirks. Devereux displays his knowledge of Native American peoples and their languages and customs and Jimmy P responds, impressed that Devereux treats him as an equal but still challenges him with quite difficult questions.
Much of the dialogue between the two men is about Jimmy’s dreams and Desplechin and his cinematographer Stéphane Fontane, with designers Dina Goldman and Justin N. Lang, create dream scenarios or ‘dreamscapes’. Jimmy’s memories also require the presentation of flashbacks to his childhood and his earlier relationships and to his time in France with the US Army. There were occasions when I wasn’t quite sure if a scene was a dream or a flashback, but I don’t think that matters too much. Jimmy P’s life had not been easy and the challenge for the filmmaker is to represent the confusion in Jimmy’s head.
I found this film endlessly surprising and this includes the introduction of Devereux’s lover, an elegant married French woman who manages to find a way to visit him for a few weeks and is welcomed as a guest by the hospital. I wasn’t sure what to expect when she stepped down from the train but I was bowled over to recognise Gina McKee, one of my favourite British actors looking trés chic and sounding authentically French. The girl from Co. Durham has done well and her character certainly energises Amalric’s Devereux, makes him even more amenable and gave me as the audience a real fillip.
What really matters though is what this film tells us about Devereux and his ideas and what it says about Jimmy and Native American cultures and the interaction between the institutions of the American state and the Blackfeet of Montana. Jimmy’s home is the Blackfeet Nation, administered from Browning, Montana and comprising one of the largest ‘reservations’ in the US – one-and-a-half million acres in North West Montana running up to the Canadian border. That border is a colonial boundary since the confederation of Blackfoot tribes extends into Canada. Apart from Jimmy himself, most of the other Native American characters in the film are played by Blackfoot actors or other Native Americans or First Nation peoples – several of the actors are Canadian. The script is subtle in the way it explores institutional racism and ‘casual racism’ encountered by Jimmy. This makes it more telling when, towards the end of his treatment, Jimmy corrects one of the senior staff at the hospital, correcting the doctor who has called him ‘Chief’ and saying: “Sir. My name is Jim. You call me Jim, not Chief”. The representation of what is in practice an Army Psychiatric Hospital is certainly nuanced. The Head of the Hospital, Dr. Manninger (Larry Pine) is the one who brings in Devereux and supports him throughout and clearly is concerned to do the best for Jim. The military doctor who calls Jim ‘Chief’ is the perhaps the only really officious doctor and his nurse is similar. But these are not bad people, they are perhaps just too fond of following procedures and not responding to patients carefully enough. As I’ve indicated, the script doesn’t need to paint the hospital in particularly lurid terms (cf the hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) when it can hint elsewhere in the narrative that the health of the Native American population in the US has always been threatened by the policies of the US government.
I was very impressed by this film and I’d like to show it to people for discussion. The only fault I can find with it is the lack of any geographical considerations. Topeka is a long way from Browning, Montana, nearly 1,000 miles, I think. I wasn’t always sure when characters had physically travelled that distance (by train in 1948), but it would have been a major commitment. But put that aside and everything else worked for me. There is no ‘happy ending’ as such, though the narrative resolves in a way that suggests Jim Pickard is now better equipped to approach his problems and that the hospital has learned something. The ‘real’ Georges Devereux worked at Winter Hospital until 1953 treating other Native Americans and then moved to posts in first Philadelphia and then New York where in 1959 his work was finally formally recognised by The American Psychoanalytic Association. In 1963 Devereux was invited back to France to teach through an initiative by Claude Levi-Strauss. He continued his work until 1981. He must have been a remarkable man.