"It's strange living in a place where people are so sick," observes the title character in Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. James Picard (Benicio Del Toro) is talking about the Topeka clinic to which he's traveled, from his home in Montana, for treatment. But his comment also applies to the world outside the institution's walls.
It's 1948, and many of the patients at the Menninger Clinic are soldiers wracked by what is now called PTSD. But other pathologies are epidemic as well, although seldom discussed openly. Indeed, the reason Picard gets the therapy he needs is because the clinic's doctors decide they just can't understand the thinking of a Blackfoot — or, as one orderly insists on calling him, "Chief."
And so a call is made to New York, temporary home of George Devereux (Matthieu Amalric). He's a Jew, born in what is now Romania, and thus had his own narrow escape from a massacre as cataclysmic as the one that nearly annihilated Jimmy P.'s ancestors.
Devereux is also an anthropologist and a self-made French Christian convert turned atheist, with that boyish European enthusiasm for the American West. "A Blackfoot!" Devereux exclaims, thrilled, and he's on the next train to Kansas, even after being warned that it's just for a one-time consultation, not a permanent position.
Devereux spent two years among Mojave Indians, and knows enough about Native American customs to surprise his new patient. He's also read more than a little Freud, and is soon talking Picard through suppressed memories and revealing dreams. (A real person, Devereux reportedly turned to Freudian dream interpretation after noting how seriously the Mojave took their slumber-time visions.)
Based on actual events, Jimmy P. is derived from a detailed 1951 book Devereux wrote about Picard's case. The second English-language feature by the provocative if often playful French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin, the movie mirrors the kinship and conflict of Devereux and Picard. It's a French intellectual — some might say over-intellectualized — look at the American character. At one point, the two men take in a movie, which turns out to be John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, with Henry Fonda as terse and unemotive in the face of calamity as Picard.
The Blackfoot ex-G.I. served in France, but never saw battle. He suffered a head injury when thrown from a truck, and later experienced physical symptoms that suggested brain injury. But physicians pronounce him "in perfect health," leaving Devereux to tromp into Picard's childhood for clues. What he finds includes an incident that couldn't be more classically Freudian.
Jimmy P. is inevitably talky, even after compressing the two men's interchanges into about an hour of screen time. And if the narrative does drag in places, Amalric and Del Toro could hardly be better; the contrast between their styles fits ideally the characters of excitable analyst and impassive patient. There's even a small joke on Amalric's characteristically manic mode: "Don't be exuberant," his new boss warns him.
While the movie's flashbacks explore Picard's regrets, Devereux's past arrives in the form of his married lover (Gina McKee). The ethnologist is pleased to tell her that his patient has a Blackfoot name quite unlike his American one; it means "Everyone talks about him." She reminds him that he too has another name: He was born Gyorgy Dobo.
With such offhand remarks does the movie reveal its submerged theme. Jimmy P. tells the more-or-less-true story of two men's friendship and one man's recovery. Beneath that, though, is a meditation on exile and lost identity in which very different people share remarkably similar circumstances.