Looking for Jimmy

Kent Jones on adapting Jimmy P: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Mathieu Amalric as George Devereux Benicio Del Toro as Jimmy P
Mathieu Amalric as George Devereux Benicio Del Toro as Jimmy P

I met up with Kent Jones during a snowy day, surrounded by New York Fashion Week at Lincoln Center, to talk about his work on Arnaud Desplechin's Jimmy P: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian. The film stars Benicio Del Toro, Mathieu Amalric, Misty Upham, and Gina McKee. The winding paths of our conversation on post-war silences, psychoanalysis, western landscapes and eastern escapes led us from David Lynch's Straight Story to Clint Eastwood's Flags Of Our Fathers to Truffaut and Hitchcock, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, Marlon Brando in The Men, across Red River to The Best Years of Our Lives and why the story of a returning World War II veteran has special meaning for him.

When I spoke with Kent in September 2013, he was embarking on his first year as Director of Programming and Selection Committee Chair for the New York Film Festival. This time around he has just been nominated for a César in the category Best Adapted Screenplay with co-writers Arnaud Desplechin and Julie Peyr. Desplechin's Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian also received César nominations for Best Film and Best Director.

Kent Jones: "Arnaud's way as a filmmaker is to be digressive, but within a very rigorously planned structure."
Kent Jones: "Arnaud's way as a filmmaker is to be digressive, but within a very rigorously planned structure." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: How did you get to co-write Jimmy P.?

Kent Jones: Arnaud and I have been friends for many years now. Ever since Kings And Queen (2004) he's been sending me screenplays or outlines and I've been giving him my reaction. In the case of this film, it's different. We talked about Jimmy P. for a long time. There's a reference to the text of Jimmy P. in Kings and Queen. There's an ecology of Arnaud's world. There was another level that was added for me because of my interest in the period and in, more specifically, the world of the returning vet. That has to do with my relationship with my father and really with my own relationship with movies.

AKT: Many men returning from war did not talk about their experiences.

KJ: Most vets didn't really talk about it. Clint Eastwood actually captured it in a very distinct way in Flags Of Our Fathers. The structure of the film is very complex and there's a scene where an older vet says, you know, we can't really talk about it. You also get a similar feeling on the other side of it in The Straight Story by David Lynch when Richard Farnsworth (as Alvin Straight) and Wiley Harker (as Verlyn Heller) sit down and tell their stories to each other. They can tell their stories to each other because they're both vets.

AKT: When did you first actually encounter the text of Jimmy P.?

KJ: It was a film that was meant to be in English and in this case, American English as opposed to English English like Esther Khan (2000). Arnaud sent me the script, I do remember going through it and making small suggestions, doing corrections in red because I thought that was the normal thing to do. I sent it to him and I wrote him a note and I said 'I really hope you don't think I'm presumptuous'. He wrote me back enthusiastically and then he asked me if I would work with him and I was thrilled. There was a script but there were a few issues. One was there were some structural issues with Madeleine (played by Gina McKee), who is an invented character.

AKT: Did she have her name already?

KJ: She was always Madeleine and she was going to be French originally.

AKT: But always in a grey suit?

KJ: Obviously. That's Hitchcock. Another thing was purely a matter of language, American colloquial language, not just that but American colloquial language from the Forties. And not just American colloquial language from Forties movies, but American colloquial language. Those are two very different things from the period. And then there was the issue of the book itself. The book is a series of transcriptions of sessions between [Georges] Devereux [played by Mathieu Amalric] and Jimmy [Benicio Del Toro]. There is a little introductory preface, an introduction by Devereux, but really, that's what the book is. And for Arnaud it was like reading a play.

AKT: For you it wasn't?

Kent Jones with Mathieu Amalric: "The relationship to the American landscape is not the wonder of the American landscape…"
Kent Jones with Mathieu Amalric: "The relationship to the American landscape is not the wonder of the American landscape…" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

KJ: It's not that for me it wasn't. It's upended in another way. I cannot imagine anyone else reading this book and thinking 'wow, I want to make a movie out of this' but Arnaud. And the reason for this is very specific. You know, psychoanalysis and cinema, for all of the reams of print about the relationship between the two, have not been on speaking terms. In other words, the actual practice of psychoanalysis in movies has been very, very poorly served. It's been portrayed as a joke. It's almost uniform. And I'm talking about the therapist in The Devil, Probably (1977) by Robert Bresson, of all people. I'm talking about the therapist at the end of La Femme d'à Côté (1981) by Truffaut. They are both kind of like unshaven and unsavory characters.

AKT: Then there's Spellbound (1945).

KJ: As opposed to, on the other side of things, a movie like Spellbound by Hitchcock which was actually written by someone who took psychoanalysis very seriously, Ben Hecht. By the movie itself, you would never know it. Or the many instances throughout film history of therapists who get their patients up and walking. Or Ordinary People (1980) where it's all about the breakthrough and then that's it. One of the things [Arnaud] saw in the book was the opportunity to actually show psychoanalysis as it unfolds. The relationship between the doctor and the patient in this case is very unusual because the doctor only has one patient. He's called in as a specialist. He's told that he is not able to call it psychoanalysis. He is a rogue psychoanalyst.

AKT: And a lot depends on this for him. He has an extra investment.

KJ: True. That's right. He also does things probably another psychoanalyst wouldn't do. At the end of the story when Jimmy says, "I guess all my complexes are gone," and Devereux says very movingly "Where did you hear that word? Who told you that? I don't like words like that. I like words that are homely that bring things closer to home." Would a psychoanalyst say that? I don't know. Or when he says "My wife was barren," and Devereux says "rubbish, that's ridiculous." On the one hand Devereux spends time defining the role of the psychoanalyst, telling Jimmy 'it's important to be angry at me'. On the other hand he crosses the line into friendship.

AKT: I can't think of another film that portrays a relationship between two men like this. In addition, you have the language. I don't know how many layers of language there are here.

KJ: There are many layers of language. First, you are talking of someone who is not a born English speaker. Then someone who is not recording the sessions but who is making copious notes and then running home and writing it all down. And then, there's a third layer. Devereux was writing for clinical clarity as opposed to capturing Jimmy's voice. In some cases he is using colloquial language in other cases the language is a little bit stilted because he is writing for clinical accuracy because the book was published as a clinical book. It has Menninger's imprimatur on it. And then the reality of Arnaud as a filmmaker, his own particular ideas how a film works, about how a film is structured.

Arnaud Desplechin at the New York Film Festival: "So when I had an unfinished version, a first draft of the script, I sent it to Kent with a question mark."
Arnaud Desplechin at the New York Film Festival: "So when I had an unfinished version, a first draft of the script, I sent it to Kent with a question mark." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Also his theory of a cinematic gender divide. I hope I can put it together correctly: A man becomes a man when he realises that he couldn't save a woman. Whereas a woman becomes a woman when she realises that she killed a man. Is that it?

KJ: I don't know about that. The first part sounds right.

AKT: How much of this was added by Arnaud, or was this present in Devereux?

KJ: It's there, it's very present. The issue of the man coming to terms with the fact that he couldn't save either the girl who fell through the ice or Jane [played by Misty Upham] - that's the core of the movie. Also realising that you can be angry. At women. Because he is afraid of being angry at women.

AKT: One of the people I recently spoke to about Jimmy P. was Sam Shepard. He hadn't seen it and I brought it up because he played opposite Misty Upham in August: Osage County. In his writing, Shepard's mystical west is radically different from what is shown in Jimmy P. I'm interested in the way America is presented in the film, the perspective seems to be beyond nationalities. It might have something to do with actors and the chosen accents. Whenever you try to pinpoint something, it flies off the screen. The most fixed thing is Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).

KJ: I think that's just. I was re-reading the conversations between Truffaut and Hitchcock. The section where Truffaut points out to Hitchcock that he has a vision of America that's extremely coarse, kind of critical. Although, you could say he has the same kind of idea of England in his English movies. He is talking of the phenomenon of European-born filmmakers coming to America and having a different take on it than John Ford or Howard Hawks or Henry Hathaway. And then Hitchcock says, well, and then there's some people who just were never able to adapt to hear the language like Renoir, Duvivier, I forgot who the other example is. For this film, you could say that more time could have been spent on bringing the period alive.

AKT: I didn't feel that way.

KJ: That's not what Arnaud is magnetised to. The relationship to the American landscape is not the wonder of the American landscape in the scenes in Montana. It's not the largeness - everything is all oriented around these characters and stays strictly in the realm of the interpersonal. That's something that is very special about the movie.

AKT: The scenes in the landscape - the tents, the cows in the forest, the way he shows nature is extremely interesting, though.

Jimmy P: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian US poster
Jimmy P: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian US poster Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

KJ: A film that could be a comparison point would be The Master (2012). That's a film about the same period, also about a returning vet who is very disturbed. It even has a scene of vets sitting at school desks in a hospital setting which incidentally is inspired by the same movie, Let There Be Light by John Huston. I gave Arnaud a copy of Let There Be Light early on and he screened it in Paris and thought, wow, this is the world of the hospital.

AKT: There is also the Fred Zinnemann film with Marlon Brando…

KJ: The Men (1950), yes. I also suggested he take another look at The Best Years Of Our LIves (1946). People can never see that film too much. But back to the Master. In contrast to Jimmy P. it was shot in 70mm. Those scenes out at sea, at the beach, or the California landscape when he [Joaquin Phoenix as Freddy Quell] is running away after he is accused of poisoning the field worker, where this sense of the big wide world is more present.

AKT: Breathtaking, really. When the boat goes under the Golden Gate Bridge.

KJ: It's incredible. In Jimmy P. you are really staying in the world of these men. Arnaud's way as a filmmaker is to be digressive, but within a very rigorously planned structure. Devereux and Menninger [Larry Pine] go shopping for hats or Devereux and Madeline go riding on horseback, things that are visual details. Scenes turning in odd corners, taking odd little byways. It's all very tightly planned.

AKT: You sense that he knows exactly what he is doing.

KJ: He knows exactly what he wants. I understood very early on that my job was not to say you could loose this or you could loose that. Whenever I did that, I thought, wait a minute, that's not the spirit of what we're doing. It was an education for me. There's a friend of mine, he's got a very good mind for film. He used to be a film critic, now he's an animator - Greg Ford. We showed [two] of his films at the film festival with The Chase.

AKT: It's The Cat and Some Other Cat. These shorts were some of the most joyful moments of the festival. These films make you so happy.

KJ: Greg [Ford] and I were talking that a lot of the time when people talk about directing, they think they talk about directing but they talk about writing. Arnaud's attention to the way that every scene work visually in the planning, in the writing was extremely minute. He is following the Hitchcock/Truffaut dictum that it's the action that you're describing, which is what film writing is - rather than dialogue. The flavour of the dialogue always came last. Often he would say "we need something that is flat", that's not going to detract attention from the action.

AKT: He is one of the filmmakers, whom I trust that if I don't understand a scene, I might get it the next time around… Arnaud said that you picked Young Mr. Lincoln as the perfect choice for the two men to watch in Jimmy P.

KJ: I had thought about Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) but it's not visual enough, too oblique. He (John Wayne's character) looses the woman and then he puts the bracelet on his wrist but it doesn't quite translate. And it makes perfect sense that a movie from 1939 would be shown in Topeka, Kansas in 1948.

AKT: Did you like westerns when you were little?

KJ: It's not that I liked westerns, it's just that I liked movies. I didn't have any particular interest in one genre more than another. I was drawn to movies from the early Thirties because of the way of life that was led by young couples in tiny apartments where people would run into each other in the staircases. It was to me very close to the world my grandparents must have inhabited. And then, as I said, films about the experience of vets returning home. Less film noir. I liked film noir but not for those reasons, you know, too stylised a connection.

AKT: Did you have favorite movies?

KJ: Well, The Best Years Of Our Lives is a movie that used to be run on television constantly when I was a kid. Over the years, I don't know how many times I've seen it. It has become increasingly powerful for me and emotional. It's a film that was so acclaimed when it came out and won so many Academy Awards that some people reacted against it. When I look at the movie what I see is such an accurate description of the lives of these three guys, emotional make-ups of their lives. Their paths beyond the film seem extremely precarious. You could picture Fredric March's character becoming a drunk. You can picture Harold Russell very obviously leading a very sad life and Dana Andrews just being a wanderer, a drifter, who might not find his way. He might and he might not. That's really unusual. The film really stands alone.

In part two of our conversation we continue with questions of memory and justice and discuss the connective tissue of World War II in Jimmy P. with Claude Lanzmann's The Last Of The Unjust and Shoah, Stanley Kubrick's unfinished Aryan Papers, Thomas and Veit Harlan and the positioning of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List.

Jimmy P: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian opened in New York on February 14.

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