Psychotherapy is a damn hard thing to build a two-hour film around. Static and talky by nature, the traditional Freudian “talking cure” tends to work best when there’s some tension and antagonism in the relationship between doctor and patient, as in “Girl, Interrupted” or “Good Will Hunting.” Even “A Dangerous Method,” which explored Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud’s development of the practice, had to throw in professional rivalries and a torrid affair to spice things up.

Yet “Jimmy P. Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian” not only serves up psychotherapy as its main course — two guys, sitting in a room, talking quietly — it develops a warm, trusting bond between them. The only dramatic tension comes from whether the patient’s mysterious illness is in fact a physical or a mental one.

Certainly the patient’s symptoms seem real enough: Jimmy P. (Benicio del Toro) is a Native American World War II vet with a head injury who seems to be suffering from something like post-traumatic stress disorder, with crippling headaches, vision loss and vertigo. His sister accompanies him to a veterans’ hospital in Topeka, Kansas, where, after a battery of tests, the doctors come up with nothing. On the verge of diagnosing him as schizophrenic, one doctor calls in an old friend, real-life psychoanalyst Georges Devereux (played by Mathieu Amalric), who has some knowledge of Native American tribes. Devereux begins daily therapy with Jimmy, convinced he’s not a nutcase, and equally convinced that he will find the root of the problem.

Jimmy P. Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (Jimmy to George Kokoro no Kakera wo Sagashite)
Director Arnaud Desplechin
Run Time 117 minutes
Language English
Opens now showing

Devereux was a formidable intellect, the founder of ethnopsychiatry, and the film is based on his nonfiction book “Reality and Dream.” A Hungarian Jew who fled Europe before the war, Devereux came to Freudian dream interpretation and psychoanalysis via a fascination with the Hopi tribe and their use of dreams as instruments of divination and guidance. Amalric doesn’t manage to bring much to the character, though, other than a flustered agitation and nearly comical Eastern European accent. Gina McKee turns up as his married and oh-so-British lover Madeline, but even that relationship fails to shed much light on what makes the man tick.

Del Toro, for his part, put in some work trying to master a proper Blackfoot tribe accent, but the result is more than a little off-putting. His pattern of speech is so painfully laconic and halting that it almost comes off as a caricature, especially since all the other Native Americans cast in the film sound much more contemporary and colloquial. It’s unfortunate that this wasn’t noticed by French director Arnaud Desplechin (“Kings and Queens”) — this is his first attempt at an English-language film. Furthermore, the issues of racial discrimination that are raised tend to lose their bite when apparently not one actual Native American actor could be found to play the lead role. A Freudian slip?

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