Happy-go-lucky - Mike Leigh (2008)
Poppy rides into town modeling openness. Apparently she has not been in it before. Or may she has and forgotten. She is enchanted with the world and, it seems, with her own enchantment. She enters a bookseller with wide-eyed wonder. Yet there is a distracted blasé quality to her search for novelty. Whatever she finds to preoccupy her, we can be sure, will be short-lived. She attempts to make small talk with the clerk, who disdains to reciprocate her interest. Most likely an introvert who finds her chatty solicitude crosses the line into manipulation. He is so intent on frustrating her need to be mirrored that he neglects the most basic duties of customer service. Exiting the store after one final attempt to compel reciprocity, she quips: “I ain’t nicked nothing. Honest, guv’nor.”
When her bicycle is stolen she seems almost amused. “I didn’t even get a chance to say good-bye.” Disappointment and anger are not in her repertoire of responses. "You can't win them all,” she will later conclude, affirming the basic confidence that sustains her.
On the bus to work she manifests indiscriminate agreeableness towards all and sundry. She is admirably comfortable with different ethnicities all jumbled together. (Only angry neurotics are intolerant, while those of good cheer are unconditionally inclusive.) She encourages the children in the school 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, a brief scene of her bouncing on a trampoline serves to drive home her preternatural resilience.
At her first driving lesson instructor Scott is all business. It’s obvious from the unreciprocated introductory hand-shake that theirs will be a relationship of failed mutuality. Leigh is up to his old tricks, juxtaposing incompatible temperaments—in this case: choleric and sanguine. There’s not much subtlety between these representatives of light and dark. Every character has a distinct hue in Leigh's dramatic quilts. This lends the conflicts they become involved in a certain inevitability. It also makes them seem--for all their specificity of milieu and motivation-- almost allegorical.
Dyspeptic and dour, Scott has no time for Poppy’s flakey friskiness. She represents the force of good, he of malice. Basically the film is about her ‘natural child’ facing off with his anhedonic ‘pig parent’. And if there is any doubt with whom our sympathy should lie--Scott has bad teeth.
When Poppy reveals she is just a primary school teacher Scott, in a rare moment of curiosity, inquires: “Are you?” She confirms it, then 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.”
She visits a chiropractor—a huge black man who releases a spinal joint she jammed at trampoline practice. Poppy sense of a common humanity doesn’t miss a beat.
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. Poppy is amused. “It’s not easy being you, is it?”
When two African men pass on bicycles he tells her to lock her door. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she protests. “Are you taking the piss? I don’t believe you just said that.” (Only uptight neurotics are wary of young males of non-European ethnicity.)
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 unarticulable 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' to her. Except as an amusing curiosity. This playful glibness, which keeps all options in play like so many juggling pins, disorders Scott's need for a final verdict. Poppy has and wants no limits-- everything is possible. For Scott setting limits is a survival strategy. Poppy's "arrogance" is a form of presumptuousness. In her indiscriminate affability she assumes it's possible to get everyone on the same wave-length. She establishes connection by actively engaging people, while Scott resents the need for attachment because it's fraught with conflict--primarily the loss of autonomy. Whence the paradox of his vehement devaluation and simultaneous desire for Poppy.
Scott's possessiveness has more of hatred than tenderness. 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 condition 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 nighttime urban landscape Poppy is lured off the street by the inchoate rambling of a schizophrenic. She is not put-off by his unkempt appearance and angry expression, striking up an odd, playful conversation with him. She offers him money. He turns her down before reciprocating her long inquisitive look. He seems genuinely puzzled by her solicitude, makes as if to stroke her hair, then pulls away before trudging off into the night. In fearlessly engaging the deranged stranger, Poppy attains her apotheosis as enlightened being. This unexpectedly spiritual moment adds a dimension of compassion to Poppy's care-free thrill-seeking.
Poppy is curious about rather than repulsed by the manifestations of male aggression around her. With the exception of her pregnant little sister, all the ‘dysfunctional’ 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 cannot glide nonchalantly past the unspoken despair of their negative example she becomes a fully three dimensional being. And yet she does not attempt to rescue them. Men are not her surrogate children, they are mates—fellow travelers.
To help her with a bully at school Poppy engages a 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 cannot have her endangering people for her own amusement. “Look around you. Do you see happiness? Do you see a policy of bringing happiness to people. No. 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.”
In a fit of rage Scott expounds his paranoid numerological theory about the Washington Monument. (You 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 her suspicion that only a child without siblings could succumb to such delusions. For the moment Poppy’s pilot light seems extinguished, though we are certain it will reignite given time.
“You need help,” Poppy tells Scott after he explodes during their final lesson. Things come to blows after she takes his car-keys to prevent him driving in his state of rage. He pulls her hair, then they chase one another around his car. It's quite funny, really.
“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…”
“I’m sorry if I upset you Scott. I wish I could make you happy.”
“So same time next week.” “I’m sorry Scott.”
“I'm a good driving instructor."
"Yeah, I know you are."
"Is that your boyfriend. Before? Was it?”
“We’re lucky, aren’t we?” “Yeah, we are. Well you make your own luck in life, don’t you?”