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Born to laugh

Psychology and cinema

The day after I saw the movie, I sat in front of my phone in a jam. My impressions did not leave me, and I could not think of anything that sounded credible to me, nothing convincing to recreate them. Such was my post that day: "I don't know what to write...". ​


Todd Phillips' anti-hero is rightfully described as dark. Darkness is literally the absence of light. Here is a parallel that may serve—the absence of light and the absence of words. Both block action – if you don't see, if you don't know, if you don't understand, then what's next, what do you do? And here seems to be the answer to the question of what it is that compels the writing of this text - a desire to illuminate the darkness, and to give words to the unthinkable and the unspoken.

Spoiler alert!


Arthur Fleck rarely speaks. The people around him find him to be odd, and this is not an exaggeration at all. He is scarce with words, but he is expressive in his fantasies - the only space in which what he says gains weight and respect. Most notable about Fleck is his laughter, often drowning out his words when he needs to speak. Instead, he carries an explanatory note - "I have a problem, a condition". Most depressing of all, laughter, at its core a positive message to the other, is for Fleck a tic he cannot control. And not only does it not carry a positive message, but it seems to invite aggression towards itself - with its inconsistency with the situations in which it gushes from. A paradox – born to make people laugh, but also causes violence.

Fleck has a dream – to be funny. It's his mother's dream actually, and her boy Happy strives to impersonate it. He compulsively writes in his notebook all the jokes that come to his mind. No one knows that the background to his jokes - literally - is a whole other emotional state, expressed through a jagged handwriting, an anxious stroke and a big sad message to himself (for the lack of another to whom it can be addressed) - how to cope in a world that expects the mentally ill to act as if they’re not.

And does it really not matter that the choice of his life's vocation is someone else's choice? The dynamic between identification with the nickname given by his mother - Happy is curious. Nothing could be further from the truth regarding the way his life unfolded. The mother herself doesn't seem to realize in the least, how irrelevant her fantasy is to her son. Yes, that's right, a fantasy, one of many she maintains about herself and him. But we'll get there.

Investing him as a "lucky guy" for Arthur will prove - paradoxically - to be both a destructive and a constructive moment. The destruction is related to the lack of any relevance on behalf of his mother – his only close person in the world - a mother, who does not see, does not hear and does not care about anything other than her son being happy, thus demonstrating her absolute inability to reflect anything of his true personality. Winnicott will help us here with his True self/false self theory, and will tell us that when the mother is not sensitive to the child's signals, but expects the child to contain her emotional states, this predetermines the construction of defenses - creating and maintaining an inauthentic self-image. A ‘self’ that conforms to the parental demands, pleases, is attentive, cares, but in return gets nothing from it. A ‘self’ so fake that it feels empty, as if it has lost meaning and significance.

In this context, Arthur's smile serves this very purpose. It is an inadequate but life-saving defense mechanism that maintains the dynamic between mother and son in a pathological dependency. All Fleck really ardently desires, along the lines of identifying with his motherly desire, is to make others smile—however absurd that may be in light of his capabilities.

And what is it that his smile manages to construct? We’ll get there.

Reality begins to set in inexorably - the apogee is an incident in the subway. The motive – self-defense, the emotion – indescribable. The craziness of the whole situation is sealed with a dance that Fleck has made into his trademark; not corresponding to the real events, nor to his emotional state, but somehow convincingly recreating the chaos in his psyche.

It all starts again with uncontrollable laughter - a convenient opportunity for the aggressor to target his victim. Fleck has no time, no opportunity to explain, to put into words what is happening, which is why he finds a completely different solution. Perhaps such an action seems impulsive, but there are too many prerequisites for such a development. In counterpoint to the eternal lack of control over his own body, his own desires and the continuous frustration he always finds himself in, the trigger that is pulled gives a new beginning - in the ability to control, to hold in his hands something of his own. Fleck will have a hard time giving up that power.

Arthur Fleck doesn't know his father. But as every human being, he has an idea of what kind of father figure is right for him. He sincerely admires the comedian Murray, shares his small apartment with Murray’s show every night, albeit through the TV screen. He hears his words, his jokes, communicates with him through his fantasies, where Murray also hears and approves. Again through the prism of his mother’s desire, Arthur sincerely wishes to assert his comedic talent precisely in the eyes of Murray, to be like him. As a result of losing almost all his bearings in life - work, treatment, meetings with a social worker, the serious condition of his mother, Arthur makes the decision to at least try ... to become a comedian. This decision finally makes him recognizable – Murray shares the video of his performance and talks about it…

The Name-of-the-father is not a specific person, image, or idea. It is a metaphor that ensures a mental order among chaos. This is a Law that we use to reaffirm the rule that there is an order in which we are also inscribed, in which we exist. It is a metaphor for the father (not necessarily biological) who introduces rules into the world of the child, but also agrees them himself, and who can put a limit on a mother's enjoyment of her relationship with her son. The absence of such a metaphor is the door to madness. What happens when the subject does not have this metaphor built, and finds himself in "situations without rules"? And who tells us how to act and what to do? Especially when the man in whom Fleck lies his own hopes for support and validation, turns his laughter into mockery, and the comedian is once again cast in the role of a clown, a jester. The fleeting hope that there is, after all, some established order in which Fleck deserves a proper place, is extinguished by the sound of his own deranged laughter blaring from the hospital room television.

Well, who’s laughing now?

​Thomas Wayne also briefly takes the place of the father he never knew. He is everything that Arthur is not - rich, successful, with a clear voice and strong messages, and personifies the privileged class, "the beautiful and the clever"; but not necessarily the compassionate ones. In Fleck's life, which completely corresponds with a city sunk in waste, there is an unexpected hope that, despite all his failures, he himself has something healthy and worthy; that there is a place for him in the world guaranteed by his blood relation to one of the leaders in society.

The collapse of these enticing illusions takes place in the stairwell of the Arkham Asylum.

The man who was responsible for giving Fleck words about his background, about his story, didn't just denied him that. This person, this mother, changes history entirely, rewrites it according to her own delusional fantasy, thereby making her son complicit. Fleck finds himself an actor in a theater that has no foundations, structure or logic. Nothing to cling to that would bring security to his already shaky self-image. The insight about this lie cuts the last thread that connected Fleck to the world of the rational, the logical. In his image, the Other, in the person of his mother/adoptive mother, denies him his most basic human right – to know who he is, the very idea of an identity of his own. Her fantasy remains a hollow pretense to a child who has no chance of responding to it.

After all this, Arthur has no qualms about easily suffocating the source of desires that replaced his own. The violence with which he is surrounded turns out to be his companion from his early childhood years - a good acquaintance who reinforces the transmission of pathological patterns of behavior between generations unrelated by blood (indeed, what does kinship mean to the pathological, which takes a shape of its own?). Penny Fleck's play is a tragedy, the product of her sick fantasies, but tragedy does not in the least suit a real rising comedian, who begins to finally assemble the pieces of his self-image into an authentic and absurd comedy.

From here on, Arthur's path leads only downwards - down some other stairs, which he triumphantly descends to find himself in full glory, with a new mask and a new nickname, in Murray's television studio, in front of an audience he has craved for his entire life. The anxiety, the torturous chaos in which he had hitherto existed, crystallized in the decision to direct his destructive impulse not inward, but outward—to the outside world. The man who does not listen and has never listened, the "absent father," lacking the Law, leaves in Arthur only emptiness and a sense of in-authenticity. In their place, however, in a last-ditch attempt at self-preservation, appears the Joker - Arthur's strongest trump card. The eccentric Joker is unencumbered by inhibitions and is rewarded with megalomaniac ideas, which in return are fueled by a crowd, that sees itself as waste in a world that it doesn’t belong to.

The Joker could not exist outside of a specific context. In the surrounding world, all potential "lifeline anchors" or vice versa - "triggers", are laid out. Access to one or the other can tip the scales in a given direction, although the personal story of Arthur Fleck - the clown - is weighed down by relationships and tragic circumstances that seem to predetermine the story's finale. One thing is clear - society will get what it deserves if it does not find a space for madness before it has developed its potential; although it itself gives rise to and instigates this same madness.

If Arthur Fleck was born to make people laugh, he certainly fails miserably at it; in trying to fit in, he remains a Clown/laughing stock in the eyes of others. Acceptable, appropriate, normal laughter is foreign to him, as are people - whom he does not understand, and who in turn do not understand him and fear him. In an ugly way, however, the Joker fulfills his mother's calling. His laughter is his madness, and if he does not manage to provoke socially desirable laughter ... then through his new identity he manages to achieve control over himself as well as over others - not to make people laugh, but to drag them into madness. This is what his specific smile manages to construct in this context – a true, authentic self.

The Joker is also a film about the devastating, screaming loneliness that no amount of laughter can silence. The only salvation turns out to be plunging the world into the same crazy state. Where no person speaks anymore, and only the screams of the crowd are heard; finally, everyone knows what it's like to be crazy. The only one who no longer needs or wants to talk is a former clown who has found a unique way to fulfill his life's calling. Once he accepts his inadequacy, he has no need for the other to get the joke.

The joker is already making jokes at the expense of others.


Dolto, F. - 'Tout est langage'

Freud, S. - 'Eros and civilization'

Lacan, J.

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