A reality show of oppression and humiliation

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By José Geraldo Couto*

It is not new that villains in comics and cinema exert a greater fascination than the heroes themselves. Without wanting to do barroom psychoanalysis, perhaps one could say about them what has already been said about the monsters of children's stories and horror films: that they embody drives, desires and fears that we want to get rid of. If the death of the monster is a triumph of civilization against the forces of the unconscious, the hero's victory over his archenemy is a triumph of the prevailing social order, a restitution of the status quo.

In light of this idea, the surprising Joker, by Todd Phillips, represents a curious twist of the scheme, not so much because it takes the villain's point of view, but because it highlights that the evil is not in him, but in the very division of the social world into winners (winners) and losers (losers), in a permanent reality show (or comedy stand up) of oppression and humiliation.

Not by chance, the film begins with the protagonist being attacked by a group of “Chicano” kids. More than confirming the saying of the torn and torn, the scene in which the oppressed become oppressors reproduces the way an insane society works.

The notion of insanity, by the way, is one of the many subtleties of this Joker. The narrative is built from the protagonist, accompanying him all the time, but it is an unstable point of view, in which the real and the imaginary are confused, forcing the spectator to constant revisions and corrections and keeping him in uncertainty. until the end, and even after.

contagious madness

The Joker's madness permeates the madness of the world, and is permeated by it. In the visual construction of the scenes, what is “real” and what is delirium have the same sharpness, the same density. Unlike most films in the Batman franchise, here the physical space is not stylized: your Gotham City is a New York with a little more trash and dirt. It is from our world that Joker speaks, or, more precisely, of neoliberal America that exalts entrepreneurship, worships celebrity, cuts social services (including psychiatric care and medication for the protagonist) and throws the excluded into the gutter or into crime.

There was talk of the parallel between Todd Phillips' film and Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese, mainly because of the presence of Robert De Niro in the cast, in the role of a successful veteran comedian, Murray Franklin.

But it's with another Scorsese film, the king of comedy (1982), which Joker talk more intimately. If there De Niro embodied an absolute idiot who dreamed of being a comedian like his idol (played by Jerry Lewis), going so far as to kidnap the latter to appear on his TV show, here an inversion operates: he is the idol, and Arthur Fleck, the Joker in the making, looks up to his example and wants to appear on his show.

The points of contact between the two films are countless: like Rupert Pupkin (the the king of comedy), Fleck lives with his mother, raves about scenes of glory and applause, wants to impress the desired woman and ends up being driven to crime. Loneliness, resentment, alienation, delirium – and crime – also bring them closer to Travis Bickle, the driver of Taxi Driver.

Social realism

More than attracting the complicity of moviegoers, these connections affiliate Joker to a cinematographic strand of social criticism that had one of its strongest moments in the United States in the 1970s and that in recent decades has been somewhat suffocated by an accentuated infantilization of productions and audiences. That Todd Phillips has just entered the arena of blockbusters of superheroes to rescue this bias of social realism is something that makes his film even more unique.

Maybe for this Joker is reaching the rare condition of a work respected by the critics and prestigious by the public. Golden Lion in Venice and mega-success at the box office are things that don't usually reconcile.

So far I have not mentioned the name of the actor who embodies the Joker. It's just that Joaquin Phoenix's performance deserves a separate text, due to its extreme density and complexity. All the character's affliction, in its infinite shades, seems to be expressed not only in his bitter laugh, but in every fiber of his thin body, in every movement of his dance, which is at the same time elegant and awkward. He is a physical and intense actor like De Niro in his best moments. His performance alone was worth the movie.

*José Geraldo Couto is a film critic, journalist and translator.

Originally published on CINEMA BLOG

Joker (Joker, USA, 2019). Directed by: Todd Phillips. Screenplay: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz

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