Happy-go-lucky - Mike Leigh (2008) - A film protocol-cum-review.
Impish Poppy rides into town modeling openness. Either she has not been in it before or she's forgotten. Enchanted with the world--and with her own enchantment--she discovers novelty with every breath. Even as life conspires to throw the odd bit of nastiness her way, she deflects all negativity with alacrity. In a bookseller she attempts to make small talk with a taciturn clerk who refuses to be manipulated by her chatty solicitude. Exiting after a final attempt to compel reciprocity, she quips: “I ain’t nicked nothin'. Honest, guv’nor.”
When she finds her bicycle has been stolen she blithely muses: “I didn’t even get a chance to say good-bye."
On the bus to work she manifests indiscriminate agreeableness towards all and sundry, admirably comfortable with different ethnicities all jumbled together. (Implied message: only angry neurotics are intolerant, people of good cheer are unconditionally inclusive.) She encourages her students to crow and flap their wings after covering their heads with painted paper bags. She's all about spontaneity. Main thing--nobody takes themselves too seriously.
In case anyone missed her innate levity, Leigh inserts a brief scene of her bouncing on a trampoline to drive home her preternatural resilience.
At her first driving lesson her instructor Scott is all business. It’s obvious from the unreciprocated introductory hand-shake that theirs will be a relationship of failed mutuality. The dyspeptic and dour Scott has no time for Poppy’s flaky friskiness and will do everything in his power to repress her irrepressible ebullience, deploying his anhedonic ‘pig parent’ with a vehemence that borders on caricature. And if there is any doubt with whom our sympathy should lie--Scott has bad teeth.
Choleric faces off with sanguine. Leigh is up to his old trick of juxtaposing temperaments. The distinct hue of every character in his dramatic quilts lends their conflicts a certain inevitability, but also makes them feel--for all their specificity of milieu and motivation--almost allegorical. Leigh is not just staging the friction between antipathetic personalities, but a full-on civil-war between ideological factions: the poster-child of inclusive egalitarianism vs. the defender of the Realm-under-siege. By embodying political orientations in personality type, Leigh offers both an etiology and critique of their respective angles on the world.
When Poppy reveals she is just a primary school teacher Scott, in a rare moment of unguarded curiosity, inquires: “Are you?” Confirming it, she in turn asks if he is a Satanist. “No, in fact I’m exactly the opposite.” “Are you the Pope, then?” she guffaws. “That’s the same thing,” he replies impatiently.
After the lesson she blithely tells her room-mate he was a funny sort. “A bit uptight.” Lacking Poppy's rose-colored vision, we already know him as the force of pure evil. But her understatement gives us pause to consider the grace of her basically affirmative attitude to life.
Poppy visits a chiropractor—a huge African man who releases a spinal joint she jammed at trampoline practice. Poppy sense of a common humanity doesn’t miss a beat. She is admirably inclusive and Leigh frames the scene in such a way as to compel recognition of this 'self-explanatory' fact by, paradoxically, emphasizing his conspicuous 'otherness'.
Scott complains about a rude student he had a confrontation with. On of those who has been “over-indulged and encouraged to express themselves,” he says contemptuously. Amused by his unintentional self-revelation, Poppy inquires, with a mix of condescension and solicitude: “It’s not easy being you, is it?”
When two African men pass on bicycles he tells her to lock her door. Poppy protests. “Are you taking the piss? I don’t believe you just said that.” Leigh implied message: only uptight neurotics are wary of young males of North African extraction.
Scott can’t believe Poppy is a primary school teacher. “You have no respect for order. You are arrogant, you are disruptive, and you celebrate chaos,” he seethes.
From the perspective of Scott’s unarticulatable desire and fear of encroaching social dissolution, Poppy’s light-heartedness seems unfathomably oblivious. If suffering “is the modality of taking the world seriously” (E. Cioran), Poppy's good cheer largely prevents it from 'getting' anywhere near her. Except as an amusing curiosity. This glibness, which keeps options in play like so many juggling pins, disorders Scott's need for a final verdict. Poppy has no tolerance for limits--everything is possible, while Scott sets limits as a survival strategy. Poppy's "arrogance" is a form of presumptuousness in assuming, with indiscriminate affability, that everyone can be gotten onto the same jaunty wave-length. She easily and indefatigably establishes rapport, while Scott seems to resent the need to engage at all. As if attachments were a threat to his autonomy. Whence the paradox of his vehement devaluation and simultaneous desire for Poppy.
Scott's paradoxical possessiveness has more of hatred than tenderness about it. He could only love Poppy if she submitted to his need-to-control. But cutting Poppy down to size proves to be a bit like catching a fish with his bare hands. To succeed would annul the very basis of adult intimacy, viz., the reciprocity of autonomous individuals. Unable to internalize without being displaced by her, there is no relational path forward for him.
Walking through a blighted urban landscape one evening Poppy is lured off the street by the inchoate rambling of a schizophrenic. Not put-off by his unkempt appearance and wild expression, she strikes up an oddly playful conversation with him. She offers money. He turns her down before reciprocating her long inquisitive look with his own incredulous regard, genuinely puzzled by her solicitude. He makes as if to stroke her hair, then pulls back and trudges off into the night. By engaging the stranger without fear, Poppy attains her apotheosis as a being enlightened by compassion.
Poppy is curious, rather than repulsed by, manifestations of disgruntlement around her. With the exception of her pregnant little sister, all the obnoxious types in the film are male: Scott, a boy at school who takes to bullying, and the homeless man in the night. For the brief periods when she does not nonchalantly glide past their unspoken despair she becomes a fully three dimensional human being. Yet she does not attempt to rescue them. Men are not surrogate children, they are 'mates'--fellow travelers down of their 'luck' who have failed to 'forge' for themselves the fortune that so benignly smiles upon Poppy.
To help her with a bully at school Poppy engages a tall, handsome social worker who exudes health and civility. He gives her his phone number and they hook up for joyful genitality.
At her next driving lesson Poppy’s flippancy riles Scott. He sternly admonishes her, saying she will have an accident and die laughing if she cannot pull herself together and be serious. He won't have her endangering people for her own amusement. Impassioned, he diagnoses and indicts the forces threatening Britannia: “Look around you. Do you see happiness? Do you see a policy of bringing happiness to people? No.You see ignorance and fear. You see…the disease of multiculturalism… Multiculturalism is non-culturalism. And why do they want non-culturalism? Because they want to reduce collective will.” (Leigh's implied message: only failed souls question that diversity unproblematically entails the enrichment of communal life, and nothing short of unlimited tolerance satisfies the requirement of the liberal social order.)
In a fit of rage Scott expounds his paranoid numerological theory about the Washington Monument. (Dig deep enough in any racist’s mind and you will find a conspiratorial faith.) For once Poppy seems at a loss, though the shadow of a bemused smirk never quite leaves her face. “Are you an only child, Scott?” she asks, seeking to confirm a suspicion. For a brief moment Poppy’s pilot light seems almost extinguished.
Returning from a weekend outing with friends Poppy spots Marc in her neighborhood. When he sees her he takes off in a comically desperate flurry. Later, in a misguided attempt to disown his maddening curiosity about Poppy, he denies her query about having been there.
During what will be their final lesson Scott explodes in anger. “You need help,” Poppy tells him, taking his car-keys to prevent him driving in his agitated state. When she refuses to give them back things really break down. In a shocking breach of etiquette he pulls her hair. She shrieks in disbelief. Finally, in one of the more amusing scenes of the film, they chase one another around his car like a couple of children.
In a rage, Scott finally betrays the depth of his envy: “This is all about you—the world has to revolve around you....You got in that car with one thing in mind—to reel me in. And why? Because you have to be adored. You’ve got to be wanted. And you drink it in. And you leave me with a spring in your step and you go off and you fuck your boyfriend and you fuck your girlfriend…”
Scott eventually calms down and turns pensive, but for Poppy the situation is beyond mending. “I’m sorry if I upset you Scott. I wish I could make you happy.” Marc misunderstands Poppy's compassion as an attempt to conciliate. “So same time next week?” he asks. “I’m sorry Scott,” Poppy replies. Knowing there will be no more lessons, he insists: “I'm a good driving instructor." "Yeah, I know you are," Poppy reassures him.
In the final scene Poppy and her room-mate are rowing a boat in a large pond. “We’re lucky, aren’t we?” her friend muses. “Yeah, we are. Well you make your own luck in life, don’t you?” The film ends as the camera pans up to encompass the park's bucolic grounds, Poppy's half-truth hanging in the air.