Last week, while recovering from a minor bike accident (which I described the other day), I remembered how enjoyable it can be to overcome an injury or a treatable illness like a cold and flu. The process has a clear narrative arc: you follow the doctor’s orders (to rest, take medication, et cetera) and gradually the pain and other symptoms go away. For someone who’s been treated for a mental illness or disorder, this narrative is especially satisfying, since mental problems, however treatable, never go away. Even with psychotherapy and medication, the best outcome you can hope for is learning how to live with the condition so that it doesn’t overwhelm you.
One thing I admire about Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. (which played at Facets Multimedia earlier this year and is now available on DVD and Netflix) is how its narrative structure reflects the messy and never-entirely-satisfying process of being treated for mental problems. Based on a true case from the late 1940s, the film depicts the unorthodox treatment of the eponymous Blackfoot Indian (Benicio Del Toro) for brain trauma received in World War II. In his treatment he comes to recognize that he’d been suffering from a range of emotional problems long before he’d been injured, mainly with the help of a Hungarian anthropologist (Mathieu Amalric) who’s assigned to his case because he’s an expert on Native American tribes. The anthropologist, Devereux, uses psychoanalytic methods to understand his charge, fully acknowledging that he might fail. Anyone who’s been through psychotherapy should be able to relate to this, as therapy is always a matter of trial and error.
The hero of Jimmy P. doesn’t overcome his problems; he learns to understand how they function, and so does the audience. Many reviews of the film criticized the slow dialogue scenes between Jimmy and Devereux, in which the patient provides the therapist with details of his personal history and medical treatment. I consider them to be the film’s most daring invention. These scenes don’t advance the story in a traditional sense—they deepen our understanding of the subject and the extraordinary historical conditions that brought him to this point. (I’ve found that the film plays better on repeat viewings, once you get past the lack of dramatic momentum and find your own avenues into the material.) Those conditions include postwar breakthroughs in neuroscience, increased government funding for experimental treatment programs, and the slowly improving relations between whites and Native Americans. Desplechin recognizes that case studies rarely conclude cleanly—and even when they do, they represent one victory in a world where many people with mental problems remain ostracized and without care.
“Relapses are good,” Devereux tells his charge near the end of the film, since relapses remind you of your condition and keep you vigilant against it. That may be an unsatisfying note on which to end a movie, but I find it much more satisfying than the false impression created by other filmic representations of psychotherapy that imply a person can be cured forever after a few breakthroughs.