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. When life conspires to throw the odd bit of nastiness her way, she deflects it 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 stolen she blithely muses: “I didn’t even get a chance to say good-bye."
On the bus to work she manifests indiscriminate agreeableness, admirably comfortable with the spectrum of ethnicities. (Only neurotics are intolerant; people of good cheer unconditionally inclusive.) She covers her students' heads with paper bags and encourages them to crow and flap their wings. It's all about spontaneity. Main thing--nobody takes themselves too seriously.
A sequence with her bouncing on a trampoline drives home her preternatural levity.
At their 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 reciprocity. The dyspeptic Scott has no time for Poppy’s flaky friskiness. Deploying his‘pig parent’ with a vehemence bordering on caricature, he and does everything in his power to demolish her irrepressible ebullience. And if there is any doubt with whom our sympathy should lie--Scott has bad teeth.
Up to his old trick of juxtaposing temperaments--Leigh pits choleric Scott against sanguine Poppy. While the distinct hue of every character in his dramatic quilt lends their conflicts a certain inevitability, it also makes them--for all their specificity of milieu and motivation--feel 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.
When Poppy reveals she is just a primary school teacher Scott, in a rare moment of unguarded curiosity, inquires: “Are you?” She responds by asking 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 snorts.
After the lesson she tells her room-mate he was a funny sort: “a bit uptight.” Lacking Poppy's rose-colored vision, we already know him as a force of pure evil. Her understatement gives us pause to consider the magnanimity of her unfailingly affirmative attitude to life. Even as we desire to see her resilience put to the test.
Poppy visits a chiropractor—a huge African man who releases a spinal joint jammed at trampoline practice. Poppy's sense of common humanity doesn’t miss a beat. Leigh frames the scene in such a way as to compel recognition of this 'self-explanatory' fact by, paradoxically, emphasizing the man's 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.” Amused by his unintentional self-revelation, Poppy, with a mix of condescension and solicitude, quips: “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?” (Only 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 fear of encroaching social dissolution, Poppy’s light-heartedness seems reprehensibly oblivious. If suffering “is the modality of taking the world seriously” (E. Cioran), her will-to-good-cheer largely prevents it from assuming any consequence. Life for her is an endlessly amusing curiosity. Her glibness keeps all options in play as so many juggling pins, while Scott demands a final verdict in these times of crisis.
Setting limits allows Scott to survive. For him Poppy's "arrogance" is a form of presumptuousness: her indiscriminate affability assumes that everyone can be gotten on the same jaunty wave-length. She establishes rapport by default, while Scott seems to resent the need to engage at all. Whence the paradox of his vehement devaluation and simultaneous desire for Poppy.
Scott's paradoxical possessiveness has more hatred than tenderness about it. He could only love Poppy if she submitted to his 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 intimacy. 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. She is not put-off by his unkempt appearance and wild expression, striking up an oddly playful conversation. He turns down her offer of money before reciprocating her long inquisitive look with an incredulous one of his own, genuinely puzzled by her unlikely solicitude. He makes as if to stroke her hair, then pulls back and trudges off into the night. Engaging the stranger without fear, Poppy attains her apotheosis as the innocent fool 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 her.
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. (They are not sadomasochists.)
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. He diagnoses and indicts the forces threatening Britannia: "the disease of multiculturalism… Multiculturalism is non-culturalism. And why do they want non-culturalism? Because they want to reduce collective will.” (I.e., only failed souls question that diversity entails an enrichment of communal life; 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. 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 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. He pulls her hair. She shrieks in disbelief. They chase one another around his car like children.
Scott 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,” she 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 row a boat through 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.