(Part 3: Purification)
Once Arthur acknowledges his existence, he moves into the next stage of the alchemical process which is known as albedo (whiteness). This phase is characterized by separation, clarification, and purification. The insights gained from the nigredo stage create an alternate reality for the alchemist in which they find themselves juxtaposed between their former perception of life and their new one.
As the audience, we are exposed to this altered reality via Arthur’s delusions and the question of whether or not Fleck is indeed Thomas Wayne’s illegitimate son. In nigredo, we observe Arthur’s life from a more third-person omniscient view. We see the decaying state of Gotham City, we hear from the social worker that funding has been cut and that the city is getting worse and worse, we observe the stratification of society between the haves and the have-nots, we watch Arthur get assaulted and degraded, and we listen to Arthur’s jarring laugh through every misfortune.
However, in albedo, we enter into Arthur’s mind. His view and his perception of reality becomes ours.
Sophie becomes a character with a consistent presence, we experience a shift during his stand-up routine at Pogo’s through an intrusion of Jimmy Durante’s version of “Smile,” and we read Penny Fleck’s letter to Thomas Wayne through Arthur’s eyes. These three events set up three foundational “truths” which exist in Arthur’s altered reality that will go through the separation, clarification, and purification processes, advancing him to the next step of the alchemical process.
It is also important to note that throughout the entire movie, there is an Oedipal element which exists between Arthur, Penny, and the “father” figures in Arthur’s life (Thomas Wayne and Murray Franklin) and from the albedo stage onwards, it will prove to be key in Arthur’s eventual transformation.
The stand-up performance at Pogo’s is an experience which is heartbreakingly shattered during the albedo stage. Through Arthur’s eyes, we experience a slow and awkward start of his performance, but then, just as it starts to become too unbearable to watch, we are ushered into an alternate reality by the voice of Jimmy Durante. In an irony not lost on the audience, Durante’s version of “Smile” draws empathy from Fleck’s struggle onstage, while also softening the blow with its hopeful message that, “you’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just smile.” We, like Arthur, forget the reality of the moment and enter into a space where everything is working out, and going the way Arthur wishes for it to. However, this experience does not escape unscathed by his progression along the alchemical path.
While Arthur is with his mother in the hospital, he views snippets of his comedy routine being broadcasted on the Murray Franklin Show. In a matter of seconds, we completely forget the rose-colored memory we had initially witnessed and view it for what it really was: a failure. And to make matters worse, it is Arthur’s “adopted” father, Murray Franklin, who highlights and makes fun of Arthur’s routine. It’s a double-whammy of having Arthur’s dreams of stand-up comedy being crushed by the man that he has always looked up to and admired. His delusion is separated from what really happened, and it is clarified by Murray’s critique, creating a purified account of what took place, leaving no room for alternate interpretations.
The question of Arthur’s relationship to Thomas Wayne is introduced to the audience through Arthur’s own eyes. He secretly reads one of Penny’s letters to Thomas Wayne, and we see on the page itself references to Arthur being Thomas’ son, as Penny appeals to Wayne for aid. This newfound knowledge brings Arthur to the front gates of the Wayne Mansion and a young Bruce Wayne, and later on, to a theater bathroom in the very presence of Thomas Wayne himself. Unfortunately, the possibility of a connection between Wayne and Fleck is “purified” in the most direct and violent manner in comparison to the Rosie and stand-up occurrences. Thomas informs Arthur that he was adopted by Penny and that she was delusional. He goes on to ridicule Arthur for believing that the two of them could ever be father and son and concludes the encounter by sucker-punching Arthur in the face and threatening to kill him if he ever touches his son, (Bruce) ever again.
Arthur’s encounter with Wayne leads him to visit Arkham State Hospital in order to read his mother’s file from the time that she had spent there years prior. This is the last sequence in which we alternate between different realities as Arthur experiences them (his final encounter with Sophie actually takes place after the Arkham visit, but it is done in a before/after method). We are able to view Arthur as he is reading Penny’s profile, we are able to watch the actual interview between the psychologist and Penny Fleck as he talks to her, and then within the Penny-Psychologist conversation we view Arthur as an omniscient observer. We learn, along with Arthur, that Penny had adopted him while she was working for the Waynes (and there is still some unresolved ambiguity about Thomas Wayne’s role in this, but it becomes virtually irrelevant to Arthur’s transmutation from this point onwards), and that both she and Arthur had been the victims of abuse by her unnamed then-boyfriend.
It is at this point that we realize the true irony of Arthur’s condition (that he suffers from Pseudobulbar affect or PBA, a condition in which he suffers from sudden and uncontrollable laughter typically during times of stress or pain) because Penny reflects that she had never heard him cry, but believed rather, that he had always been such a “happy boy.” This missing piece to the puzzle initiates Arthur into the next alchemical stage as he has achieved self-knowledge. He does, however, have one final delusion to be purified, his relationship with Sophie.
Early on, we are led to believe that she and Arthur are romantically involved. We are shown sequences of them hanging out together, and she is even present during Arthur’s stand-up routine. However, Arthur arrives at her apartment unannounced following his visit to Arkham State Hospital, and when she visibly conveys fear and surprise at his being present, we realize that she too is a figment of Arthur’s imagination. As he moves his fingers to his temple in a mock gun-gesture (mimicking the one that she had jokingly made to him when they had first met), we re-watch every scene that we had seen of them together, but this time as they really occurred…without her. Once again, the gun comes to symbolize a transition, as an annihilator of his delusions with Sophie. This final shattering of delusion and imagination ushers Arthur into the third alchemical stage known as citrinitas (yellowness).
[To be continued…]