Joker

(Possible spoilers ahead)

You were never really here is what the Joker thinks the world is telling him. It is also the title of the film I was most reminded of watching Joker, nevertheless reminiscent of several other works whose influence it carries lightly. In Lynne Ramsay’s 2017 thriller, Joaquin Phoenix played Joe, a traumatized war vet living in a New York apartment with his eccentric mother. In trying to clean up the rotten system ruling the city, Joe also struggled against an inheritance of malady, a violent disposition that might already be running through his veins. Explicitly channelling Taxi Driver, Ramsay’s film was a meditation on violence and masculinity that offered a critical distance to events Scorsese’s film denied. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro feature in Todd Philips’ new film, but masculinity is hardly the pressing question here, for Joker is the story of a subjectivity reduced to dust.

When we first see Arthur Fleck alias Happy alias Joker, he’s in front of a mirror putting on clown makeup. He’ll be in front of mirrors two more times in the film, but he’ll look at his own image on the newspaper and television all through. There’s a split between Arthur’s external and internal selves that Philips and Phoenix emphasize through a range of formal choices. Arthur is a social outcast, and in the opening passages of Joker, he alternatingly comes across as a threat and a victim. The melodramatic scenes depict him being ridiculed and bullied, while his interactions with decent people forebode an outward aggression. Moreover, Arthur has a medical condition—he laughs uncontrollably in stressful situations—which makes those around him suspect he’s being funny, even though he’s feeling the opposite in reality. Arthur’s behaviour belies the conventional equation of laughter with comfort and control. And Phoenix does a phenomenal job of embodying this duality.

This split perspective of Arthur as a comic and a tragic figure suspends the viewer in an uneasy relation with the character. Scenes of Arthur’s debasement prompt us to sympathize with him and expect retribution, but it’s far from liberating when he does get back at his tormentors. Part of the reason for this is that Philips and co-writer Scott Silver remove the character from the mythos of the comic world and plant him within a realistic discourse around mental health. Arthur is admittedly deranged and acts of vengeance aren’t gratifying or cool; for the most part, they are untimely and disproportionate. Philips, in fact, distances his revenge from any sense of poetic justice. The first time Arthur hits back is in a subway where three Wall Street types are beating him wild. Arthur kills them with the gun he’s carrying, but Philips composes the sequence as though it were an accidental happening. The first bullet goes off during a scuffle under flickering light and Phoenix plays the scene like a survival attempt.

Arthur tries uneasily to comply to social codes, but he’s always laughing at the wrong lines. His internal life, on the other hand, is tenuously held together by a handful of relations: his self-deluding mother living in the past, the man she says is his father, the woman next door he grows close to and De Niro’s comic talk show host Murray Franklin whom he takes to be a father figure. When these relations are proven to be lies one by one, Arthur’s inner life collapses and he becomes a purely external being, a public image without connotation. Joker traces in these disappearing connections to the reality the seeds of the character’s nihilism. With all narratives about himself falsified, Arthur becomes a being without history or future, and the universe emptied of import. The money-burning, neutral chaos that the Joker stands for corresponds to a loss of internal signification. The anarchy he witnesses at the end of the film, consequently, is a pure spectacle without meaning.

When asked about his motivations, the Joker maintains that he’s apolitical and that he has nothing to do with the anti-rich movement his subway murders have initiated all over Gotham city. It’s the world around him that ascribes a political meaning to his actions. To be sure, the Gotham city of Joker is not a morally neutral space. The garbage flooding the town is as much moral as physical—a detail that is established in the first scene in which a teenage gang harasses and beats up a hapless Arthur. The head of the Wayne corporation, Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s father) is a neoliberal figure running for mayor’s office who thinks that the city needs to be cleaned of its super rats and that vigilantes like the Joker are losers hiding behind a mask. Funding for social welfare and healthcare is being cut down—Arthur’s medical visits are forced to end—and resentment about inequality is in the air.

Arthur too shares the sense of disenfranchisement the Blacks around him experience. But the Joker is no Bane. For him, the sight of protesters donning clown masks and taking to the streets has no political weight; it’s a show to be enjoyed. Even though the protesters appear to take him as a figurehead, he doesn’t represent any community and religion is wholly absent in this world. There’s no feeling of injustice (to him or to his mother) fuelling Arthur’s actions, which are merely reactions to an environment trying to erase his existence. Of course, there’s no such thing as a truly nihilistic act. That’s why the film’s climactic passage doesn’t wholly cohere: when Arthur (now self-christened Joker) is invited to Murray’s show to be humiliated, he launches into a screed about how the world is indecent and malevolent—hardly the words of a person who sees no meaning to things. What the harangue does is to provide a cri de coeur for someone who has been proven to be hollow.

This last scene also underscores the film’s starkly non-mythical bent. Though the Joker might be nihilist, the film is anything but. In trying to understand the origins of Joker’s anarchism, the film exhibits the sort of empathy and insight-creation that’s usually the reserve of realist cinema. Given the industrial context of superhero franchises and cinematic universes, which depend on fan loyalty and familiarity for their signification, I think it’s also commendable that Joker offers a self-contained work that uses the Batman mythos only as a remote backdrop, like the way, say, Ben Hur uses the Bible. Compare the film’s sustained engagement with Arthur’s experience to the third-act shift in The Dark Knight Rises, which few viewers outside of fans could find interesting. The result comes close to the semi-independent cinema of the seventies. Philips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher balance warm and cool colours in almost every shot—reflecting Arthur’s split image—to produce textures that, to my eyes at least, resemble 16mm. Their 1.85:1 ratio Gotham city seems painstakingly reconstructed from archival documents of Manhattan. Phoenix, in an evidently virtuoso performance, walks its sordid streets, going up and down staircases, looking up and down television images, contorting his emaciated body in a combination of ballet and tai chi. Thankfully, the film does justice to him.

Toni Erdmann

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is what the American president would call a world-class loser: a divorced, middle-aged man living with his ailing dog, eating frozen food and making ends meet working at an old-age home. He makes occasional visits to his old mother, plays pranks and has a sense of humour only the viewer can understand. When his dog dies, he goes into crisis and flies into Bucharest to be with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). Ines is too busy with her consultation project that’s helping an oil giant outsource its jobs – a term that her client doesn’t want uttered. By his appearance and wilful behaviour, Winfried sticks out in Ines’ corporatized mise en scène – an endless alternation of offices and business meetings masquerading as parties – and is sent home after a costly faux pas. Out of desperation or concern – we don’t know – he decides to stay back in Bucharest and shadow every move of Ines’. The objective: to jolt his daughter out of her Hamster-wheel existence. Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann takes the familiar scenario of estranged relationships and gives it a new life by fleshing it through a series of set-pieces brimming with incident.

With his loose T-shirt, unkempt, flowing hair and split spectacles, Winfried is clearly a pathetic figure, midway between Fellini’s clowns and Lisandro Alonso’s inarticulate loners. The film doesn’t pretend that he’s any more than that. He has no self-esteem, his jokes and the schtick with the false teeth fall flat. So do his attempts at playing the wise fool, his views on what’s important in life revealed to be vague and incoherent. For Ines’ birthday, he gifts her an off-the-shelf cheese grater. It’s only partly a joke. When she’s understandably taken aback, he shows her the wad of Euro bills attached to the grater and says that that’s the actual gift. He realizes that each of the two gifts is more offensive than the other, each serves as alibi for the other. This kind of double act, one insuring against the failure of the other, is typical of Winfried, who leads a kind of ironic existence. He’s always pretending to be someone else, pretence being his way of guarding himself from hurt. In the first scene, he asks a courier to wait at the door, only to come back as “his brother” to collect the package. We see him in costume and make-up throughout the film, weaving stories about himself and others.

Pranking is the only way Winfried can keep the world and himself at bay, but it is what helps him connect with his daughter too. After he forgets to wake her up for an important dinner, Ines all but forces him to go back home. That evening, she complains about him to her girlfriends at a party when Winfried, now sporting a suit and a wig, barges in as Toni Erdmann, a high-profile “life coach”. Toni is a parody of the corporate type, the only one that Ines understands or has time for. Toni encounters Ines wherever she’s with her coterie, thus authorizing himself with all her contacts. Through the figure of Toni, Ade’s film puts in confrontation Winfried’s open approach to life with the fakery of corporate culture, both staking claims on Ines’ time and energy. While Ines’ company wants her to be more charming, throw parties to show that she’s cordial, and basically imitate real life in order to succeed in business, Toni appropriates a corporate way of being, forcing Ines’ to take responsibility for him whenever he’s around. In a spoof of “bring your kids to work day”, Ines is obliged to take her father along with her to an important meeting because he’s handcuffed her to him, a favour he returns by dragging her to a middle-class Romanian family’s Easter gathering and coercing her to sing.

The film is hence centred on Ines’ “thawing”, her movement from her self-denying role as the perfect corporate middle-manager to her role as Winfried’s daughter. Fed up with having to put up a façade, she breaks down just before her big party for her Romanian colleagues, spontaneously turning it into a prank and acknowledging her inheritance. It’s an original set-piece, moving in an organic fashion from sad to weird and finally to hilarious and Sandra Hüller aces it. As much as Simonischek’s Wilfried is a type, Hüller contained response to him saves their dynamic from becoming one. The big outburst that the viewer expects never comes and is instead sublimated in a song Ines belts out. Ade dedicates dozens of shots just to observe the unique way Hüller moves. There’s an amazing shot of her working the zipper of her dress with a fork. She often reacts to Winfried’s excesses with an inward withdrawal, with accelerated blinking and subtle inflections of her posture. Though her Ines is expected to be on top of things at office and at dinners, she proves eminently capable of tuning out of her surroundings – a nuance in performance that makes final passage of the film where she spends an extended moment with her father entirely credible. It’s apposite that the film ends with her blank stare.

Toni Erdmann comes in the long line of humanist films championing the outcasts and deadbeats – that historically-bound section of humanity out of step, voluntarily or not, with the forward march of capitalism. Ade’s film is sensitive to class differences both within Winfried’s extended family – everyone tolerates him with a plastic smile – as well as between Ines and her surroundings in Bucharest. Ines is there in Romania as part of a larger project to take it out of post-communist doldrums, to bring the country up to speed with the rest of the European Union. But the oil industry is privatized, malls are running empty and jobs are going away. Ines and her clients seem to be in a bubble untouched by these details, meeting each other at upscale restaurants and pubs far from Romanians and Romanian life. So, Winfried’s uninvited intervention also has for result the breaking of this bubble. Ade’s intelligent and empathetic film plays out in a handful of languages and is a veritable snapshot of the European Union in all its promises and failings.

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a muscular psychological thriller, less successful than We Need to Talk about Kevin but cut of the same formal fabric, that revolves around Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran turned hitman, who specializes in bringing back abducted girls. Joe is known for his brutal but effective, seamless operation. Joe lives with his old mother in their New York home, likes a certain kind of candy and shops for his weapons in supermarket. His latest mission is to rescue the teenage daughter of the local senator who’s being held captive at a city brothel. Joe infiltrates the facility, kills the keepers and frees the girl, but she’s soon abducted again by an army of henchman sent to eliminate Joe and everyone close to him. He learns that the senator has been killed and that these men have been sent by the governor who’s running the whole racket. Joe decides to get into the governor’s house and rescue the girl again.

This is Ramsay’s first film set in New York and the milieu heightens the echoes the work gives of Taxi Driver. You Were Never Really Here is, in fact, in constant dialogue with Scorsese’s film. For one, both deal with ex-marines trying to integrate back into civil life and who experience a strong revulsion towards the condition of the city and the political figures exploiting it. Both protagonists see innocence embodied in the figure of the white, blond teenager forced into prostitution. And both films feature several shots of the lead male topless, their vulnerabilities exposed. But while Taxi Driver depicts Travis’ descent into hell rather graphically, You Were Never Really Here is insistent on eliding violence. All the violence in Ramsay’s film is only suggested, never shown. A shot of Joe punching a drug dealer is filmed from the side with only Joe visible, the viewer not allowed to identify with the aggressor but observe him from a distance. The entire shootout at the brothel is presented as CCTV footage cut to “Angel Baby” in monochrome and without a single violent visual. Joe’s final raid at the governor’s house is implied through tableaux of the aftermath.

But the more crucial reversal with respect to Taxi Driver lies in the film’s treatment of masculine self-image of the hero. Travis counters his powerlessness in face of the inhuman machinery of the city with a bloody fantasy of triumphal reassertion. Like many of Scorsese’s films, Taxi Driver plunges the viewer right into the lead character’s mind-space and lets the viewer sort out the implications. Ramsay’s film, on the other hand, affords the viewer a distance. Joe has glimpses of a childhood memory flash by now and then: his psychotic father brandishing a hammer, looking for his mother hiding under the table, while kid Joe stands helpless. This helplessness is reinforced in another series of flashing images: his inability as a soldier to prevent the murder of a girl by a teenager over a chocolate bar. This fear of having inherited his father’s toxicity and his repeated inability to save women under duress feeds into his anxiety as a rescuer of abducted girls. Joe’s (unintentionally humorous) self-flagellating reproaches of being weak is a far cry from Travis’ putting up news items lauding a local hero. The fount is corrupt: the men have failed, it’s up to the women to save themselves.

Like in Kevin, Ramsay appropriates horror movie tropes, employing them to illuminate urgent, personal concerns. Ramsay’s associative editing, which connects different elements of the film in unusual, subconscious ways, isn’t as visceral as it was in Kevin, perhaps because the flash inserts are all neatly tied to Joe’s war trauma, but it’s still uncanny in the way it’s hinged on flinch-inducing sensations: sand on feet, candy in mouth etc. You Were Never Really Here invokes film history without that awareness weighing down on it too much. The spirit of Hitchcock’s Psycho looms large and is pertinent given Joe’s obsession with cleanliness and his tortured relationship with women, his mother in particular. There are also recalls from The Searchers, Le Petit Soldat and Kevin itself. A man Joe fatally wounds holds his hand during his final moments, an existential truth that reappeared in cinema the following year, more successfully and less preciously, in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, another film about a resentful ex-serviceman trying in vain to get back to normal life in a city that doesn’t make it easy.