Desplechin’s Jimmy P(hallus)

Screenshot from 2014-07-14 12:14:39

Spoilers follow, if the plot is your thing, and if you, like me, haven’t read Georges Devereux’s Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian.

Last February, Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (2013) received a surprisingly sympathetic review from Richard Brody in The New YorkerThe film, about Devereux’s psychoanalysis of Jimmy Picard, a WWII Veteran and Blackfoot Indian:

admirably bypasses the familiar movie trope of interminable analyses as a form of bourgeois self-absorption. It restores the primordial power of Freud’s great idea in its principally medical, results-oriented terms—self-knowledge, practical improvement, and independence. In one of the movie’s loveliest scenes, Devereux’s girlfriend Madeleine Steiner (Gina McKee), who has come to visit, asks him, “How do you know when the treatment is over?” Devereux answers, “There are no rules.”….It’s not giving anything away to say that there’s no big breakthrough in the treatment, no thunderous resolution. True to Devereux’s free-flowing sense of what constitutes a successful treatment, the movie doesn’t give in to the kinds of epiphanies (as in, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”) that reduce psychoanalysis to a search for a combination to open a lock. The de-dramatized ending is no accident or oversight. The height of the drama isn’t in Picard’s relative and incremental well-being, it’s in the resurgent and conscious presence of the past—which includes the painful history of Picard’s people, the acknowledgment of slights and resentments, and the readiness to push back (at least verbally) against unrepresentative and unfair authority.

Picard’s problems are what you’d expect to be turned up by psychoanalysis in this period: an absent father, a domineering mother and older sister, and childhood sexual trauma. His symptoms, likewise: various psychosomatic symptoms — headaches and blindness — abate as his psychic trauma abates. And the cure is just as familiar: Picard needs to learn to fight back against women so he can finally claim the daughter he abandoned.

In the film at least, Devereux, an anthropologist and an intimate of the Mojaves, decorates his analysis with gestures towards Blackfoot culture. He reminds Picard that the Blackfoot Indian men used to beat their wives; Picard replies “I would never hit a woman.” And that’s what the film would have us believe is his problem. Once Picard’s able to pick up women in town and abandon them, once he’s able to leave his sister, once he’s able to become a good father, then he’s cured. Devereux has assimilated Picard into the dominate masculinity of 1950s White America, which is largely still this America, today. He’s made Picard a Good American Man.

Here’s where Desplechin betrays the full potential of his story. Perhaps the historical Devereux did too. From the wikip:

In From Anxiety to Method in the Behavioral Sciences Devereux proposes to rethink the question of the relation between the observer and the observed. Devereux takes his guidance from psychoanalysis. According to him, the classical methodological principle which prescribes to the researcher to make his observations from a strictly objective point of view is not only impossible to put into practice but outrightly counterproductive. Instead the observer should place himself in the middle of the process and keep in mind that whatever he may observe is always influenced by his own activity of observing.

More precisely, the only data to which the observer actually has access to are his own perceptions, his reaction to reactions he himself had provoked. According to Devereux the observer must think about his relation to the observed in the same manner an analyst would do in his relation to his analysand. The analyst works with the transference he triggers and with the countertransference he can perceive looking at himself. In any study where the subject under scrutiny is the subjectivity of human beings (or even of animals), this procedure has to be applied, according to Devereux.

Now, as the film reminds us, Devereux himself wasn’t originally French. He was a Romanian Jew, born György Dobó, who emigrated to France in the mid 20s and converted to Catholicism. When, in the film, he’s asked about his family, his response is tellingly ambiguous (“It’s no trick to hide in Romania.”)

The film’s Devereux is an atheist; Picard’s the Catholic. Both, however, are survivors of genocide, albeit of different sorts. Both are bereft of family and of what the 1950s would recognize as a regular married life. Picard abandoned the woman he should have married and married a woman who abandoned him. Devereux, married at least twice, loses Steiner to her husband (who, I believe, is this Lucas Steiner, which means Madeleine may also be Marion Steiner).

Here’s the film as it might have been, then: Devereux and Picard both might have scorned these cultures that had, after all, done them no good; Devereux might have helped Picard recognize that his sister had, after all, raised him and saw to it that he received the care he needed; he might have helped Picard be grateful where it was owed and dismissive where it was deserved. And, had the film’s Devereux “perceive[d] himself look[ing] at himself,” he might have led both Picard and himself towards something other than a comfortable masculinity.

Because, after all, the true lesson of castration anxiety is not for men to realize that they have the phallus, or that they can finally claim it, but that no one ever gets to have it.

(French wikip is very thorough on the film, despite its being in English; if you’ve not seen any Desplechin, start with A Christmas Tale: it’s wonderful, definitely one of the better modern French bourgeois dramas).

(and needless to say, I don’t know much about psychoanalysis, anthropology, or their histories. This post is largely an exercise for me, its main audience)