DRAMA

'Jimmy P.’: Therapist and patient, odd and charming | 3 stars

Updated: 2014-03-06T02:34:49Z

Not rated | Time: 1:54

As played by Benicio Del Toro — flattening vowels, biting at consonants, pushing his tall, square frame though postures of graceful anguish — Jimmy Picard, a World War II veteran and a member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe, is the picture of a noble soul in torment.

He is both charismatic and pathetic, and he inspires in his therapist, a French anthropologist and psychoanalyst named Georges Devereux (Mathieu Amalric), a complex mixture of responses, including sympathy, rivalry and unabashed ethnographic curiosity.

Their relationship is at the center of “Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian,” Arnaud Desplechin’s ruminative, gentle and absorbing new film. Based on the writings of the real Georges Devereux about a real patient, Desplechin (who wrote the screenplay with Kent Jones and Julie Peyr) tells a story that both challenges conventional movie images of heroic (or diabolical) therapists and reasserts the value of old-fashioned, talk-based, dream-focused psychoanalysis.

Rather than present Jimmy’s symptoms — which include catatonic episodes and brutal headaches — as a puzzle to be solved, the film uses them as a springboard into the mystery of his personality. And while there is no magical, permanent cure in prospect, there is a sober, humane conviction that suffering can be diminished and life improved.

Jimmy is taken by his worried sister (Michelle Thrush) to a veterans’ hospital in Kansas shortly after the war, and, for a time, the movie teases us with the possibility that this place will be a familiar cuckoo’s nest of cruelty and quackery. But the staff doctors (Joseph Cross, Elya Baskin and Larry Pine) are kind, intelligent and humble enough to realize that their new patient may test the limits of their expertise.

And so they summon Georges, who has spent time living among Indians in the Southwest and written a book about their customs and beliefs.

He arrives in the American heartland — by train from New York, where he has been pursuing a penniless Bohemian existence — carrying a lot of Old World baggage, not all of which is unpacked. The audience gathers some hints of trouble with the psychoanalytic establishment, and also of a grim wartime experience.

Georges Devereux was actually born a Romanian Jew named Gyorgy Dobo, a fact that the movie hints at without fully exploring. Nor does it give too much information about the married lover (Gina McKee) who joins him in Kansas to add a bit of romantic bliss to what is already a satisfying professional sojourn.

But while the therapist may be an odd and fascinating specimen — and while Amalric is thoroughly at home in Desplechin’s universe, having frequently served as the director’s alter ego and alter id — the patient is the point of this movie.

At first, we hear only Jimmy’s halting testimony as he answers Georges’ questions about his childhood, family life and wartime experience. But as the treatment progresses, flashbacks and dream sequences give literal shape and symbolic weight to episodes of fear, loss and thwarted love.

What we do not get is a neatly resolved case study. A single human personality is not like a locked door awaiting a key, but more like a perpetually shifting maze, through which a twisting, redoubling path might be found, though never an escape.

The intellectual scrupulousness of “Jimmy P.” comes at the expense of dramatic power. It refuses sensationalism or suspense, which may at times cause the hush of the seminar room to fall over the theater.

This is a calm film about strong emotions, but it does find a reservoir of intensity in the two central performances, in particular Del Toro’s. He presents the spectacle of a man figuring himself out, using whatever tools are available: his ancestral culture, European science and his own intelligence.

It is moving to witness, partly because, even when the film and the treatment have ended, so much remains to be done.

(At the Screenland Armour.)

| A.O. Scott, The New York Times

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