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Director Talks About 'Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian'

An interview with Arnaud Desplechin, director of Jimmy P., starring Benicio Del Toro and playing at the New York Film Festival

For his latest film, French director Arnaud Desplechin gave himself the daunting task of shooting a story about the complexities of 20th-century life for the indigenous people of a foreign country. But when he read Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian by ethno-psychiatrist Georges Devereux, he says, he was so taken by its dramatic potential that he had little choice but to make it into a film. The result, Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, starring Benicio Del Toro as a troubled Blackfeet WWII veteran, will have its Stateside premiere on October 1 at the New York Film Festival.

Arnaud Desplechin. Source: IMDB.

Jimmy P., which showed at the Cannes Film Festival in May, co-stars Mathieu Amalric as the therapist, and features a supporting cast of Native actors that includes Michele Thrush, Misty Upham, Jennifer Podemski, and Gary Farmer. Desplechin took a few moments to talk to ICTMN about his much-anticipated feature.

Did you come to make Jimmy P. because of a specific interest in Native issues?

It came from my interest in psychoanalysis, as I am a great reader of psychoanalytical books, as well as for the Native culture, which I discovered as an adolescent when I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

We have those childhood dreams—When I grow up I will be a cowboy, or an Indian. I wanted to become an Indian! Then, there is the issue of genocide, and the Native tragedy; my parents were activists, and followed the events in the media after the Alcatraz occupation. We were aware of what was going on.

Georges Devereux's 'Reality and Dream' was published in 1951.

I discovered the book [Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian], which has a dialogue, through psychotherapy, between a Native patient and his European therapist. It's written like a theater play, and I immediately saw the intense dramatic potential of the story. I decided to adapt the therapeutic sequences to make the movie.

I sent my assistant to Browning, Montana, to find the place where Jimmy grew up, and bring me back interviews—I needed to know who were the Natives today, through portraits of characters, while writing the screenplay.

I learned more about the post-traumatic stress syndrome in Devereux’s book from watching the movies The Exiles (1957), by Kent MacKenzie, and Let There Be Light, a 40mm film shot by John Huston for the army in 1945 in a psychiatric department. That helped us a lot.

The two central characters in the film are both strangers: As a Native in this place now called "America," Jimmy is a stranger in his own land, and Devereux is a French ethno-psychiatrist living in exile. Is this a movie about exile and social exclusion?

Of course, the exclusion issue is important. They meet in Topeka, one comes from New York, the other from Montana, and in both places they're seen as aliens. But the key point is this meeting between a Jewish man and a Native, just after the war, and how they become Americans: how do you become an American?

I was very concerned by the issues of genocide, and ethnocide, as one is Jewish and the other Native. That story, with its melancholy and grandeur, touched me.

Was it a risk, as a French filmmaker, doing a movie about a Native character, shot in the United States, and with the perspective of a French and European audience?

Of course it was a gamble, but Jimmy could be any one of us. And while writing his character, I was doing a self-portrait—with some distance, of course—but I had to identify with the role. It was a risk, being French, and doing a movie with an American actor, about a minority. But I think the audience will be interested, because Jimmy’s story is universal.

What did the encounter with the Native world bring you?

I had important experiences. I was invited to the Browning Sundance, which was an intense moment—the physical endurance, the drum. Also, when Benicio and I were given our Indian names. Those experiences feed you. They change you for the rest of your life. That goes far beyond the movie.