Happy-go-lucky - Mike Leigh (2008) - A film protocol-cum-review.
Poppy rides into town modeling openness. She has either not been in it before or has forgotten. She is enchanted with the world and, apparently, with her own enchantment. With wide-eyed wonder she enters a bookseller. There's a distracted, somewhat blasé quality to her search for novelty. One feels that whatever she finds to preoccupy her will be short-lived. She attempts to make small talk with the clerk, who disdains to reciprocate her interest. Most likely an introvert who refuses to be 'manipulated' by her chatty solicitude. So intent is he 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 nothin'. 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 later concludes, affirming the basic confidence that sustains her life.
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. The dyspeptic and dour Scott has no time for Poppy’s flaky friskiness.
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.
Leigh is up to his old trick of juxtaposing temperaments—here the ever incompatible choleric and sanguine. The distinct hue of every character in Leigh's 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?” 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.” Lacking Poppy's rose-colored vision, we already know him as the force of pure evil.
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. 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. Poppy protests. “Are you taking the piss? I don’t believe you just said that.” Leigh's 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 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' near her. Except as an amusing curiosity. This playful 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: assuming, in her 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 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 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 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 wild expression, striking up an odd, playful conversation with him. She offers money. He turns her down before reciprocating her long inquisitive look, 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, and we come to see her as more than just a distracted thrill-seeker.
Poppy is curious about, 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 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 message: only angry neurotics 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 her suspicion that only a child without siblings could succumb to such delusions. For the 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 he denies having been there in a misguided attempt to disown his maddening curiosity about Poppy.
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 frustration Scott rages: “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 their situation is beyond mending. Too many lines have been crossed. “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 in the afternoon sun, Poppy's half-truth hanging in the air.