Saturday, April 26, 2014

Soul pain

I remember taking much more time over my 2008 article on French director Arnaud Desplechin than I usually do (you can read it here). As I wrote at the time, the likelihood of my saying anything insightful, or even adequate, just seemed too remote, because Desplechin is a gorgeously complex filmmaker, perhaps the best modern embodiment of the classic “art house” figure. In 1,100 words or so, I used adjectives including “magisterial,” “strange,” “thrilling,” “discursive,” “disciplined,” and “audacious,” summing it all up like this: “To me it simply feels as if he’s absorbed the tools of cinema better than any of his peers. And also for a better purpose. Only a true and eloquent optimist could explore human behaviour so expansively; only a great director could so convince us that there’s still something urgent and personal to be optimistic about.”

Jimmy P

A couple of years later I provided a list of my ten favourite films, and included Desplechin’s 1996 picture My Sex Life….or how I got into an Argument, by far the most left-field of my choices, saying among other things that “The stunning climax profoundly embodies the immense possibilities within even the smallest of interactions for triggering joyous reinvention.” I think My Sex Life… would still be on the list if I went through the exercise again today. Anyway, you get the point – I’m a huge Desplechin admirer, and it’s been a long wait from A Christmas Tale, which prompted the 2008 article, to his new film Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian.

The wait was even longer because while Jimmy P opened in the US in early February, it never came to theatres here - a further indictment of Toronto’s over-hyped notion of itself as a movie lover’s capital. It’s been available on demand for the last couple of weeks, although you had to dig down the list to find that out. On this occasion, Desplechin is working in English (as he did in his 2000 film Esther Kahn), exploring the real-life story of Jimmy Picard (Benicio del Toro), an Army veteran admitted to hospital in 1948 with a variety of symptoms (which in the present day would likely be loosely labeled as post-traumatic stress disorder). After he evades any easy diagnosis or treatment, the hospital brings in Georges Devereux, a French anthropologist/ psychoanalyst with expertise in Native American culture, on the theory that Jimmy’s condition might in some way be specific to his Blackfoot culture; Devereux’s particular expertise in the Mojave, but this at least provides an accelerated starting point. The bulk of the film follows the conversations between the two, along with representations of Jimmy’s dreams and key scenes from his past.

Oedipus complex

Notwithstanding the criticism I just made, it’s not so surprising that the film fell largely between critical and commercial cracks; at times, it almost feels designed to do so, to approach a kind of vanishing point. It functions as an inversion of much of Desplechin’s previous work, substituting inwardness for expansion, eschewing a wide canvas to focus intensely on a single dilemma (although the recreation of the period feels accurate, this is in no way one of those historical films that shows off its sets and costumes). At times, the film almost seems on the verge of dismantling itself under the force of this scrutiny, to decompose into segments for which we lack the connective tissue (whether cinematic, narrative or psychological).

This serves as an expression for Devereux’s investigative methods, calm and collegial on the surface, but drawing from Jimmy a mass of potentially problematic past experience: what we’d now call sex abuse by an older girl; walking in on his mother having sex with another man; foolishly failing to marry the love of his life and, after her death, ending up estranged from their child; head trauma during the war. Some of this seems almost like a parody of Freudian “clues” to bad dreams (at one point, addressing his colleagues on the case, Devereux has “Oedipus complex” prominently written on the board behind him); at another times though, the doctor seems to distance himself from conventional notions of analysis and interpretation. The difficulty of organizing all of this into a coherent “treatment” reflects itself in the nature of their interaction: each talks rather tentatively, partly reflecting that English isn’t a clear first language (Jimmy says he dreams mostly in English but not always), and the film emphasizes Devereux’s precise transcription of their conversations, amounting to what seems like thousands of pages of notes.

Jimmy’s malaise might however be as much cultural: the film contains several instances of casual or institutional racism, suggesting at times that a form of madness might merely constitute a rational response to America’s treatment of him. Near the end there’s a seemingly minor but perhaps key incident in which Jimmy is given the wrong information about office hours, perhaps by mistake, perhaps as a tactic, but if so then seemingly a belittling one representing how Jimmy’s race trivializes his concerns – as with so much in the film, it’s hard to form a clear conclusion. Desplechin seeds the film with a broader sense of mystery, in particular regarding Devereux’s origins: we learn in passing that it’s not his real name, and there are references to professional and personal troubles in his past. In the course of the film, he’s visited by his married lover, called Madeleine; the name and the woman’s unattainable nature seem like a clear evocation of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

String of masterpieces?

Mental illness (or at least, extreme behaviour that blurs the line between that and iconoclasm) has been a recurring interest of Desplechin’s work, often embodied in characters played by Mathieu Amalric, who plays the doctor here (a doctor who, at the end of the film, we himself see being analyzed). In this as in other ways, the film represents a logical extension of the previous films, even as in other respects it takes a vast leap away from his previous territory. In truth, Jimmy P is probably most fascinating if viewed as a knowing contrast to the director’s other work, rather than on its own terms – in itself, I imagine it might seem rather strange and hermetic.

But for me, that only confirms what I said about Desplechin’s classic art house status. A director like Francois Truffaut, whom Desplechin has talked warmly about, didn’t generate an unbroken string of masterpieces – his filmography zigs and zags between genres and moods, between major works and others that were always intended as smaller films. It’s difficult to maintain that kind of career now, if only because of financing. But Jimmy P fascinatingly extends the topography of Desplechin’s work, leaving an immediate sense of regret that one can’t continue right on to its next chapter.

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