Monday, November 29, 2010

Happy-Go-Lucky


Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky is built around a peculiar and extraordinary character, the 30-year-old school teacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a woman who is forcefully, unbelievably enthused about life and, seemingly, everything in it. In the opening minutes of the film, she encounters a reticent book store clerk who responds to her peppy greetings with glowering silence and confusion, as though he doesn't understand why this woman is wandering through his store, asking him questions and smiling and laughing for no apparent reason. But this is just how Poppy lives her life, with an attitude of openness and cheerfulness that can seem, to the people she encounters and at times to the film's audience, like absurd naiveté or even lunacy. Poppy is a person of boundless optimism and good will, and her final question to the store clerk provides a subtle glimpse of her worldview. She asks the man if he's having a bad day, and this finally shakes him out of his stony silence, at least long enough to answer with a simple "no." The unspoken question, then, is why he seemed so rude, so closed off, so unwilling to interact. When Poppy encounters this kind of attitude, she assumes that something must be wrong, because she doesn't realize that for a lot of people — even most people — the default setting for getting through the day is not boundless cheer but resignation or, at best, neutrality. Most people are not like Poppy, greeting every day with laughter no matter what happens. When she leaves the store, she realizes that her bike has been stolen, and even that she responds to with bemused laughter rather than anger; she's a little sad only that she didn't have a chance to say goodbye.

As a character, Poppy perhaps strains credibility — and in certain scenes shatters it altogether — but that's part of the point. She's almost artificially, supernaturally happy, very unlike the poor, downtrodden, miserable characters who often populate Leigh's films about the British working class. Poppy presents an alternative to that misery, an alternative to the attitude of constant complaining, an alternative to the attitude that the world is out to get us and that the best thing to do is snarl back. When Poppy encounters the small adversities of everyday life, she muddles through as best she can and tries to make it as enjoyable as she can. At one point, she injures her back while trampolining, and winces her way to the chiropractor, although she also exclaims that her back pains make her laugh — which is not surprising, since everything makes her laugh. While she sees the doctor, her friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) waits outside, trying to chat up another back pain sufferer, and Leigh not too subtly points out how outrageous Poppy's attitude is. While the man in the waiting room cringes and glowers at everyone around him, and Zoe points out that back pain affects everything, including one's attitude, Poppy is giggling and smiling through her pain, joking with the doctor. Back pain doesn't alter her attitude, and neither does almost anything else. Leigh stages the scene in a strikingly intimate, even sensual way, with Poppy stretched out on the examining table in a pink bra and bright orange panties beneath black net stockings. As the big hands of the doctor probe her body, Leigh almost makes the examination seem sexual, flirtatious, but really Poppy is just doing what she always does, which is to remain open to other people and to her own pleasure even when things aren't going so great.

This attitude encounters its greatest challenge in the form of Scott (Eddie Marsan), Poppy's driving instructor. Scott is an obvious bundle of (barely) repressed rage and disdain for other people. He is a Christian of a particular type — he says that Satanists and the Pope amount to the same thing — and also a conspiracy theorist and a racist. The openness of Poppy and Zoe to the black chiropractor — who they find attractive and kind — is contrasted against Scott's instinctual reaction to lock the car doors when two young black men go innocently riding by on bicycles. Scott is nasty and perpetually angry, always complaining about his driving students, about the inconsideration of other drivers, and especially about Poppy's cheerful attitude. Leigh relies a lot on closeups throughout this film, probing closeups that establish an at times uncomfortable intimacy with his characters' exaggerated emotions and the way those emotions are scrawled across their faces. There could not be more distance between the ready smile and bright eyes of Poppy and the constricted, taut face of Scott, who's always snarling and spitting from between clenched teeth, his face threatening to turn red with anger, his eyes scrunched up into angry slits. The two actors are each exaggerating, each projecting their feelings in the broadest possible ways, and Leigh purposefully sets these two caricatures against one another, letting the sparks fly simply by placing them in the same car together.


Of course, it's wildly entertaining and exciting, but the surprising thing is that it winds up being more than that, more than just an over-the-top acting exercise in which two broad types clash. Because even though Poppy and Scott are each extreme incarnations of opposite personality types, there's something poignant about this meeting of the avatar of good cheer and the personification of Christian repression and rage. The tension between the two explodes during the final act, when Scott unleashes, in a torrent of startling hostility, exactly how he feels about Poppy and exactly how he sees her. It's a vision of Poppy strikingly different both from how Poppy sees herself and how the audience has likely seen her up until that point. And Poppy looks at him with a dawning sadness on her face, an expression of true despair as she realizes how badly he has misunderstood her and her intentions, how different his whole way of looking at the world is from hers. It's such a bracing moment because it gets to the heart of the film's study of Poppy, who remains so outwardly happy through everything that one is forced to wonder if it's an act, if she's really happy or if she's nursing a deeper loneliness or depression beneath the surface.

That would be the conventional understanding of such boundless cheerfulness. The usual idea is that anyone who responds to everything with a laugh or a joke is adopting a defensive posture against the world, but that refreshingly doesn't seem to be the case with Poppy. She is thirty years old and has no boyfriend for most of the film, and several times her friends delicately probe how she feels about this situation, asking if she's lonely or if she wants a baby or if she's unhappy with her life, but Poppy shrugs off such concerns. She's OK with her life, with her friends, with her job, and she doesn't feel the need to dwell on the things she doesn't have. People keep telling her to be a grown-up, but Poppy certainly has a more mature attitude than Scott, who tells her to grow up but is implicitly compared by Leigh to a schoolyard bully in Poppy's class, a troubled boy taking out his anger on his classmates. And just as Poppy tries to draw out that boy, to get to the root of his troubles, she tries to do the same thing with Scott, though his grievances have had longer to fester, his angry worldview has had time to solidify, and his troubled childhood has lasted well into his outward adulthood.

What's interesting about Happy-Go-Lucky is that, although Leigh obviously admires his heroine's pluck and joy, there are certainly times where Poppy must become aggravating even to a sympathetic audience. Her openness to everything leads her, at one point, to wander into an abandoned construction site late one night, following the crazed ranting of a bum. This is surely the scene where Leigh goes too far in portraying Poppy as a kind of holy fool, as she interacts with this obviously mentally damaged man with the same innocence and good cheer she displays with everyone else. The scene has a sense of danger running throughout it, an uncertainty about whether this man is dangerous, whether he's going to assault Poppy. Poppy isn't oblivious to the danger — she's not that stupid — but she traipses on anyway, trying to do... well, what? She offers the man some change, which he refuses, and she asks if he's cold, though she wouldn't have any obvious remedy for that if he had said yes, but mostly she just seems to be trying to connect, to talk to him, to see what he wants or needs.

At moments like this, though, Poppy seems less cheery and optimistic than suicidal, or at least willfully blithe with risk, naivé about the dangers of the world. The scene seem like a fantasy diversion from reality. In other scenes, one even sympathizes with Scott as Poppy, unable to keep a straight face for more than a minute, makes light of the dangers of driving and turns her lessons into jokes. It's hard not to agree with the otherwise unsympathetic Scott that driving is a responsibility to be taken seriously or else people will get hurt. Leigh intends for us to just keep laughing along with Poppy, to see her perpetual teasing of Scott and her casualness with driving as a joke, but in some ways he sets this up so that he can pull the rug out from under us with Scott's final enraged speech to Poppy. Because although Scott ultimately reveals himself as even more pathetic and distasteful than he'd first appeared, Leigh doesn't flinch away from the fact that Poppy's carefree, always-happy attitude led her to this place. And Poppy, of course, has reason to be happy: she has good friends, a job she loves, in the end she even finds a boyfriend. The worst thing that happens to her in the film is Scott telling her off. One wonders if her attitude could survive a change of context, or how she would cope with real tragedy, if she could cope at all. The film's final image of Poppy and Zoe rowing together on a lake — Poppy and Zoe go boating? — is a peaceful and cheerful one, but lingering questions remain, like whether Zoe hides a twinge of resentment now that her friend has a man and she doesn't, and whether Poppy would even realize such things. She's happy, but is she aware? And does it matter?

10 comments:

Danton said...

Thanks for the review. I disagree only on the question of Poppy's naiveté. I actually think she's profoundly intelligent. What's incongruous is a character who is both extremely intelligent as well as someone of "boundless optimism and good will" - the two traits almost seem to be mutually exclusive. And yet there's no logical contradiction here. In what follows, I'm going to argue for Poppy's intelligence and awareness by making many of the same observations that you did, only with a slightly different emphasis.

I caught on in the early scenes, when Poppy starts playing around with paper and glue like a child, and you can't help wondering whether she might have a screw loose; only to find out that she's actually a primary school teacher preparing a class. Ah, I thought, the joke is on me. After that, I saw someone who is very thoughtful but who for the most part keeps these thoughts to herself, preferring simply to be congenial (sometimes to the point of appearing vacuous) rather than risk becoming confrontational. But I'm convinced that behind all the nodding and the smiles she never misses a beat.

I did not interpret the scene with the homeless man literally, but rather took it to be a metaphor for an inner, emotional confrontation with the narcissism she encounters in others. This episode was prompted, if I recall correctly, by having to deal on the one hand with a student who bullies others, and on the other hand her driving instructor who himself (it is implied) was bullied at school. The linearity of the narrative is interrupted at this point to indicate that Poppy gets the relation between the two and wants to deal the underlying trauma in both cases. And she knows it's not going to be easy - hence the scene dealing with an autistic, erratic stranger in the middle of nowhere. That's the perfect metaphor for the crippling narcissism which results from trauma, and which is destroying the mind of Scott her instructor and threatens to do the same to her student. Poppy wants to make a difference, and I think she knows exactly what she's doing (if not entirely how to go about it).

Of course things don't work out with Scott - but this is hardly Poppy's fault. She realises well before the final confrontation that Scott might be dangerous, and yet she still wants to help him. When she falls silent in the face of his mad rantings, it is not I think so much that she realises she has been misunderstood, but rather that she now knows Scott can't even see her. Not really. When Scott asks Poppy about her boyfriend and she refuses to answer, it's because she knows (intuitively) that Scott is at the moment violently projecting into her, such that he can only see a despised part of his personality reflected back at him. Scott's narcissism at that moment is total. And in the face of that she has to admit defeat, but this doesn't stop her from caring about him as we see in the next scene.

Perhaps Poppy's character is on some level implausible. But at the same time she represents the best aspects of our humanity.

DavidEhrenstein said...

At heart she's as psychotic as many another Mike Leigh character (eg. David Thewlis in Naked)

I trust I'm not alone in encountering one of those creeps who runs up to you on the street, sticks their grinning mugs in your face and commands "SMILE!"

Greg said...

I'm still a little pissed that neither Hawkins nor Marsan were nominated for this film, both of which, had they been, I would have given the Oscar to.

The confrontation scene between Scott and Poppy may be extraordinary but what is intriguing to me is that we don't see Scott again. We see Poppy and, as expected, she's fine and talking about how Scott isn't a bad chap, etc. But what if Scott's dead? What if he killed himself after that? He certainly could have given his volatile emotional state. Does Poppy care what happens to Scott after that remarkable confrontation? I don't think so.

I think the final scene signals something very important and has an impact that I believe Leigh intended but perhaps didn't play very clearly to audiences: That is, Poppy can remain happy in life only because she never goes beyond the surface of any one on one relationship. When things get sticky (you think she honestly ever visits that homeless guy again?) she hits the road. "That Scott guy? Oh, he's fine, I'm sure. Now let's laugh some more!" But for god sakes, don't ever look into the Scott situation ever again. You might find out something you don't want to know.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all. Danton, that's an interesting take on the character, though ultimately I think I agree more with Greg and David, below, about her. I don't think she's unintelligent, of course, but I question whether she's really representative of "the best aspects of our humanity." Yes, she means well and tries to do good, and to maintain a cheery attitude while doing so, and that's certainly admirable. But as Greg says, there's also something almost compulsively happy about her, as though she is determined to suppress anything she can't either be happy about or improve. I hinted at this in talking about the final scene, where Poppy obliviously chatters away with her boyfriend, perhaps missing the subtle tension of Zoe, who betrays just a few hints of jealousy and discontentment in the film's final act, feeling that she's still single and maybe losing her friend. I think Poppy's need to be constantly happy sometimes verges into a willful obliviousness to other people's feelings, as evidenced too by how shocked she is by Scott's outburst about her, which had been building up for so long. Like Greg, I think Leigh intends for the film's final act to be somewhat critical of Poppy, though if so I'd say he doesn't drive the point home well enough. It's just there as a very subtle, maybe too subtle, hint of darkness at the edges.

Ed Howard said...

And yes, both Hawkins and Marsan deliver AMAZING performances in this.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, Poppy. How I've missed her.

As you know, I had a problem with this movie. The acting is terrific, and as I said in my conflicted (non)review, I think there is a great amount of truth to these characters. I found reading your review wonderful, because I like thinking about these characters as dramatic and metaphorical elements, which is easier now that I've recovered from the awful experience of spending time in their company -- particularly Poppy.

I know that sounds strange to say; but Scott I could handle. I'm with David, that Poppy is as psychotic as it gets. I see where Danton is going with his analysis, but I can't agree with this part: "...rather than risk becoming confrontational ... I'm convinced that behind all the nodding and the smiles she never misses a beat." If she's really trying to avoid confrontation, she wouldn't constantly turn Scott up to 11, if you understand my meaning. She's an instigator. And what I think is interesting is how much we want to give her a pass for her behavior simply because happiness is supposed to be so, well, positive. But just imagine if Poppy was just as well intending by pushing her religion on everyone around her. We'd find that unattractive. Poppy lives in this cult of extreme happiness that's disturbing.

I'm rambling at this point; brain is pretty fried today. But in glancing back at my own review, I came across this, written by a critic I respect that I think applies well to this film, though it was written about Meantime:

"Leigh ... sees no way out for these people and thus offers no solutions. This unwavering commitment to actuality, to giving center-stage to the forgotten and ignored, is Leigh's greatest strength. These are people who, in mainstream cinema as in life, have no voice and no representation, and Leigh's humanist attention to these downtrodden sectors of society is the only attention they're likely to get."

Well said, Ed!

Danton said...

"Poppy lives in this cult of extreme happiness that's disturbing."

I take it that Jason's sentiment is behind a lot of the comments here which are critical of poor Poppy. But I just can't see it myself. To me her character is the exact opposite of the narcissism which is being attributed to her by remarks like this. I'll just make two quick points about what I take to be her depth as a character.

From what I recall, there are two times we see Poppy reflecting quietly to herself. One is just before she intervenes with respect to the bullying incident on the playground. And the other is just after her final confrontation with Scott. If she lacked self-awareness we would never see her thinking, only reacting.

Second, whether or not you take the episode with the homeless man to be a metaphor, it's clear that she is voluntarily putting herself in a situation which she finds uncomfortable. At one point, she says to herself something like: "what am I doing here?" The answer, I think, is clear: a profound sense of human solidarity. That's what motivates her in her dealings with others. Not a pathological need to be happy.

Ed Howard said...

Jason, yes, I well remember you problems with Poppy, and they're understandable, even if personally I really enjoy spending time with her peculiar breed of nuttiness — at least as long as she remains up on the screen rather than in my living room. I often find Leigh's loony characters simultaneously appalling and enthralling to watch, which is why David's comparison to Johnny in Naked makes so much sense. Likewise the delightfully awful Nicola in Life In Sweet, although she's more like Scott than Poppy.

I will say that I don't think Poppy means to piss Scott off, necessarily, which is why I don't see her as an instigator. She just can't help being herself, and her natural personality is like nails on chalkboard for, well, probably a lot of people, but especially for someone like Scott.

Danton, those are good points about Poppy's moments of reflection. But I wonder if such thoughts are all too brief for Poppy. She does show genuine concern for the bully and takes steps to help him out, although at the same time the bully disappears from the film once his narrative function is complete, that is, once he's provided a pretext for Poppy to meet her new boyfriend. And at other times, as with Scott and as with her obliviousness to Zoe's worries, Poppy doesn't show much awareness of other people at all. Regardless, your interpretation is certainly valid and I can see it both ways; I think there's a lot of ambiguity in Leigh's presentation of Poppy, a lot of room for conflicting readings of her.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"on the screen rather than in my living room" is a very important point to make across the board. I abhor the way some people go on about "unlikeable" characters -- as if the filmmaker were arranging a blind date for them. What matters is the overall context. Jake La Motta in Raging Bull is as unlikeable as they come. Yet Scorses and DeNiro go so deeply into him that he's impossible to dismiss out of had. He's a brute, and aborderline-psychotic when it comes to Vicky. Yet the entire proess of the film is to pull us into his world and make it palpable. We're NEVER asked to find him admirable in any way. But we are asked to review his life and times -- and its well worth doing.

Or as Marlene Dietrich says at the end of Touch of Evil "He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?"

That's an open question.

Jason Bellamy said...

Yeah, "instigator" was a poor descriptor. What I was really trying to convey is that if we decide that she's aware, then clearly she has to be aware that she's getting under Scott's skin in an unhealthy way llllllong before he totally flips. You referenced this in your review, but because they've stacked the deck with Scott, it's almost impossible for him not to be the villain. But ignore him for a moment and all of a sudden Poppy looks like the 8-year-old child who doesn't know when to quit, and who keeps delighting herself while her adult authority figure tries to get her to respect the situation. So that's the kind of "instigator" I was thinking of -- she pushes buttons. If she's aware, then she knows what she's doing -- even if she might not be driven by malice. If she's unaware, well, there you go ...