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Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips is a film with an amalgamation of profound aesthetic and political density, which is accompanied by an imagistic beauty that presents the specters of a Social-Psychological Renaissance. The film is a story of a man who dreams of becoming a successful comedian i.e., the protagonist, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). His story showcases the process of genesis of the original supervillain in an oppressive society, set in the ’80s of the comic Gotham City. Here, I will attempt to psychoanalyze the specters that emerge in the course of the film, by identifying the “repressed moment” or the “prägung” and the signifiers along with examining the “father figures” of Arthur’s life to unfold some psychoanalytic and semantic meaning out of the character’s psyche and self (Lacan, 1988).
The beginning of the film reveals the first specter of the repressed emotion, with the intense scenes of Arthur Fleck’s laughing condition. The pseudo-bulbar affect (PBA), essentially a neurological condition that is characterized by an uncontrollable outburst of laughter or cries, reveals the signifier which is the mask that Arthur wears as he aims to be a comedian. Arthur’s laugh, which is essentially a condition, presents an emptiness in his shared language with the society, as he uncontrollably laughs after identifying himself as a comedian in front of his audience. This unmotivated laughter can soon be identified in terms of pain, as he begins to choke on his own laughter. In the film, the society often misinterprets this laughter and fails to understand, as one would say in terms of a psychiatric discourse, the disassociation between words and objects i.e., the signifier and the signification- mutual feelings and the revelation of the expression that affects him. The society fails to identify the repressed emotion during the spectral moments of Joker’s uncontrollable laughter. It is a laughter that alienates Arthur from his surroundings, as he becomes a painful subject constantly trying to locate and integrate himself into the ‘normal’ society. The film is a beautiful blend of fantasy and reality, as it presents the oppressive background in a society located in, what can be called a dark and dirty sub-world wherein along with the poor population of Gotham, Fleck tries to find the meaning of his own existence.
It is important to understand the duality of Joker’s nature, there is a repressed self that originates with specters from Arthur’s idealized self which is the Joker. In later parts of the film, his character transforms into a unary signifier, a strong subjective construct, which the oppressed section of the society starts identifying with. Another thing to understand here is the film continuously shifts from reality to Arthur’s delusionary world. An imposition of mass psychology can be identified in this background of controversial politics and violence within Gotham City, as it begins to empower a moment around this spectral signification that Arthur presents the two of different classes of the society with. This repressed self, when it gains sympathy amongst the weak of the society, takes the sense of anonymity that Arthur struggles with out of him as he continuously begins to signify an “anti-hero” i.e., here the super-villain, becomes a kind of hero for the oppressed. And the moment this occurred was when he kills his idol or ‘father-figure’ after he had made fun of his condition, on his TV show in front of the world- he becomes an object of injury, he becomes a hero. Arthur, an object under the gaze of the world, transcends from being a persecuted object to an admired one.
This dynamic and enigmatic blend of the reality of the society and Arthur’s delusions, in discourse heavily, bases itself upon the constitution of social bonds that fleck’s unconscious tries to understand and integrate with. According to the classical Freudian or Lacanian understanding of the unconscious, the unconscious is simply which that is fundamentally related to a symbolic or spectral anchoring point i.e., the “name-of-the-father” which facilitates the possibility of a discourse (Lacan, 1968). According to Lacan, “the unconscious is politics” is a development of “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other” (Lacan, 2002). This link to the Other, intrinsic to the unconscious, is what inspires from the outset Lacan’s teaching. This is also true when it is pointed out that the Other is divided and does not exist as One.
Arthur Fleck’s childhood details are gradually unfolded throughout the movie, as he attempts to exist between reality and his delusions. The relation to the Other, is unfolded during the specters of Arthur’s idealization of the ‘father-figures’ and also while crashing of these intense idealizations. Franklin Murray (Robert De Niro), who is a TV host of a popular talk-show, is one of the first father-figures that Arthur resonates with at the beginning of the film. This idealization develops when Arthur starts to watch his show on a daily basis with his mother whom he takes care of and resides with. The film also presents the moments of delusion when Arthur finds himself immersed in the show so much so that his imagination lets him believe that is one of the people in the audience of Murray’s show. Later in the film, another ‘father-figure’ idealization develops as Arthur’s mother reveals that Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), is his biological father. Arthur shocked and excited with the news, then proceeds to meet Thomas Wayne. He attempts to fail the first time, but the second time he succeeds. Thomas Wayne after meeting Arthur bluntly reveals the reality of the situation by informing him that he is indeed not his father and that his mother was delusional and hence, he had to fire her and report her for help. This is the moment where Arthur’s ‘father-figure’ idealization crashes. He becomes devastated and shook, and starts looking for answers. The film soon reveals all the details about Arthur’s childhood, when he visits the psychiatric hospital to search for his mother’s medical reports. He finds that Murray was correct, and further that Arthur was in fact adopted, and also abused by his mother i.e., his maternal bond, as well as paternal bond, crashes at the same time. With this crashing of parental bonds, Arthur soon witnesses the last crash of idealization i.e., of the TV host Franklin Murray, when he plays the clips of his condition during his show, and laughs about it. Now, Arthur has lost touch to most of his delusions about reality and starts to fully transform into Joker by embracing his insanity. In Lacanian terms, this absence of the name of the father in Arthur’s life could be the reason behind his anarchic personality that makes him rebel against the law. This crashing of all the parental figures finally leads Arthur to embrace his aggression in front of the world. It gives him a reason to embrace his existence within the blended realms of reality and delusions which he had hated every second of his life before.
One of the earlier scenes of the movies, where Arthur’s strong subjective construct really attracts the sympathy of the society and the audience of the film in real life, is when Arthur fights back for the first time after he is ridiculed and beaten up by three men during the train ride. This moment is beautifully unfolded in the film, as Arthur’s character starts to give up and acknowledge the ‘Joker’ within him. He kills the three men in what can be argued as an act of self-defense. With the revelation of this scene, Joker starts to be seen as an ‘anti-hero’. And this subjective construct, due to the excellent filmmaking and acting skills, proves to be a strong anchoring point that lets the oppressed people avenge his every action. He proceeded to kill his mother as an act of ‘justice’ after he had realized that she had lied to him all these years and that the reason behind all his mania and melancholy is his Mother itself, whom he had been taking care of all his life and had loved so much. He also kills his colleague who gets him in trouble at work, but within that scene, there is an important factor that comes into play which retains this strong subjective construct i.e., when he lets the other colleague live because he was the ‘only one who was ever nice’ to him. Moreover, the death of Frank Murray, the ‘father-figure’ that Arthur identified with the most, in terms whom he wanted to be and what kind of society he wanted attracted towards to him, served as ‘justice’ in his eyes, as he had felt rejected and disappointed in humanity as a whole. In the narrative of the film, the mass society or the lower class of the Gotham City idealizes the transformation and emergence of ‘Joker’ a rebellious figure in the society. The lower classes start riots against the government and wealthy men like Thomas Wayne, soon after Arthur becomes ‘Joker’ and emerges as a Master who does not take power for himself but simply encourages the masses to seize their freedom for themselves. In other words, he does not become his ‘Father’.
The film also displayed moments of Arthur dressed as ‘Joker’ dancing and embracing his confusion, dilemmas, and delusions. The scenes directed by Todd Phillips, presented by Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix), depicted through his dance along with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s soundtrack, signify his urges to accept, acknowledge and become free of his repressed self. Arthur’s dance moments emerge in the film when he is faced with intense situations like when he had killed the three men on the train or when he was getting ready to go on Franklin Murray’s show only to kill himself as the last ‘joke’. These dance moments, very well co-ordinated with the soundtrack and the narrative of the film, gives out these profound specters of the acknowledgment of the repressed self. These are the moments when Arthur fully identifies with “the mask” i.e., his manic repressed self i.e., ‘Joker’. The first dance scene unfolds right after Arthur had revolted against bullying for the first time in his life. He had quickly left the train station, running to find a comfortable and safe shelter. This when the bathroom dance scene reveals the first full spectral emergence of the repressed self. The last main scene in the film, when Arthur is on his way to Franklin Murray’s show also constitutes of Joker’s dance scene. This is the moment when he had fully identified with his repressed self and accepted his own version of reality as the only version of reality. His joyous celebration of the moment while coming down the stairs with a dance establishes the understanding of the character’s narrative in its whole entirety. This can be acknowledged when the sync between the dance, music, and narrative is seen from a critical point of view. Furthermore, it also has a connection to Carl Jung’s Shadow Phenomenon which is essentially a realm of the psyche in which an individual’s unacknowledged negative impulses are compounded until they become an active influence in one’s behavior, ”Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is” (1938). In order to maintain mental equilibrium, an individual must acknowledge these negative impulses otherwise it can cause a shatter in the cognitive pattern of the individual. When this negative pattern is failed to be recognized, then the individual’s mind makes him/her the hero of their own stories i.e., the perceived victimization is hoisted up as a justification for ‘negative’ behavioral-patterns. As Carl Jung said in Archaic Man, “Projection is one of the commonest psychic phenomena…Everything that is unconscious in ourselves we discover in our neighbor, and we treat him accordingly”. In terms of adaption from the comic books to the film, the film also signifies this moment of acknowledgment and acceptance of the repressed self with the help of the comic Batman: The Killing Joke, wherein the Joker says, “All it takes is one bad day”, implying that an individual is only one traumatic moment away from insanity or madness.
In conclusion, Joker (2019) succeeded in presenting the enigmatic scenes of the repressed and unconscious desires, along with the string narration which locates its existence within the blend of reality and delusions. The film also constituted of scenes where Arthur’s delusions were strongly identifiable like the scenes where he thought he had a real relationship with his neighbor, but only much later could he acknowledge the reality when the lady confronts him in her living room. This moment clearly established that Arthur suffered from delusions. Also, the Social-Psychological Renaissance that this movie presents its audience with allows for the identification of “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other” (Lacan 1955).
Jung, C.G. (1938). “Psychology and Religion.” In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. p. 131.
Jung, C. (2002). The earth has a soul. p.111.
Lacan, J. (1955). “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter'” in Écrits.
Lacan, Jacques. (1968). The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Anthony Wilden. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, p. 40.
Lacan, J. (1988). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I, Freud’s Papers on Techniques 1953-1954. W.W. Norton & Company, pp.187-199.
Miller, J.‐A. (2002). Milanese Intuitions . Mental, 11, 9–16.
I don’t think I’ve seen a movie like this in the DC universe, or perhaps even movies in general in a very long time. There’s a good movie, and then there’s an absolute masterpiece, and this is definitely an absolute masterpiece. It’s funny that Todd Phillips, who generally makes films in the Comedy genre, could come up with a brilliant 2hrs of comic book/drama in the most perfect way possible. And even funnier that Todd claimed that the movie has nothing to do with the DC universe, where in fact it had so many ties to the Batman mythology. I mean come on, it’s Gotham, there’s an Arkham Asylum and even the Waynes in the movie..
You watch the movie, and you’re astonished and left thinking, and that is a trait that only a few movies in the history of cinema have achieved. You can take Tarantino with Inglorious Bastards and Nolan with Interstellar. On top of the brilliant 120 pages script that Joker has, and the directors’ cut that I hope gets released, it is extremely noteworthy to mention the perfect coordination of all the departments of the production crew. This movie would have performed okay with a defect in a few elements, but it did wonders instead because all the elements (departments) of the movie were in perfect synchronization. From the traditional joker makeup to the costume design and further to the soundtrack, not once was there a discrepancy in the well-put film. Not to mention, there was absolutely no CGIs in the movie. How BRILLIANT!
The soundtrack – Outstanding. The cello perfectly portrays the intensity of emotions that dances on the polarity of emotions the character goes through. I don’t think we could have expected any better from Hildur Guðnadóttir, in fact, she started composing the music before the movie was even shot. She said she composed the music based on how she felt whilst reading the script that Todd sent her, and frankly, I think she couldn’t have captured the string-based melody any more right. I think I’d rate the OST in level with one of Interstellar. They both succeed to describe the intensity of the scene and its emotion. Oh, and how beautifully did they use Sinatra’s That’s Life. Zimmer for Batman and Guðnadóttir for Joker is truly a great delight!
The makeup was probably more traditional and a classic look than the previous wild disappointment from Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad. What I liked, even more, was how subtle Joaquin Phoenix’s hair was dyed in green. Just perfectly aligned with the sophisticated joker costume. The scene of Joker’s dance down the stairs is the epitome of the perfect Joker scene right off the comic book into real life. Killing Joke vibes pretty much.
And Joaquin Phoenix. I think the man can finally retire, he has left an impact that will be remembered forever. The man definitely deserves an Oscar. Honestly, I would say, the Oscars deserve the Joker. I never thought that his acting will compete with Heath Ledgers’. I was mind-blown with his talent. He lost weight, a good amount of weight, practiced for hours for his roles without the help of CGIs of any sort and even practiced dancing for months to perfectly nail the role. What I personally look for in a real actor, is his capacity of making the audience feel emotions even with a subtle face. Which, Joaquin Phoenix was able to portray. Oh, and the laugh. The pathological laughter, although different, probably again levels with Ledgers’ and even from the animated Joker. It’s perfect, how he can make you understand how his laugh is making him choke and suffer when he doesn’t even have the desire to laugh in the first place. It’s so sad honestly, but I think Todd did a great job in bringing forth this condition forward for people to understand. It’s a bit rare but definitely needs awareness.
The movie, in general, did a fantastic job of bringing forth the harsh judgment that comes from society about mental illnesses, especially back in the day. What hits me the most was the quote, “The worst part of having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t”. And also to mention the quote, “Oh, why is everybody so upset about these guys? If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me. I pass you every day and you don’t notice me! But these guys, what, because Thomas Wayne went and cried about them on TV?” hit differently. The movie portrayed so much, from mental illnesses to resistance but it’s crazy to see how most critics are being hard with the violence portrayed in the film. It’s a movie on one of the darkest villains of the DC in the most realistic setting possible, not a Marvel film full of meaningless comedy.
There’s honestly so much that I can write about this movie, and I feel like the more I’d see it in the future, the more conspiracies or theories I’d come up with.
Here’s another quote that I think is also noteworthy while critiquing the aspect of violence in the film, “What? It’s okay, Gary. You can go. I’m not going to hurt you”; “You’re the only one that’s ever been nice to me”. Not that I’m trying to justify the violence of any sort here, I’m just pointing out that maybe it would always be more insightful to look into someone’s story from there side before moaning about the conclusion. And I think, the movie did an incredible job of portraying the harsh reality.