February 1st, 2011
Poppy and Scott in a scene from Happy-Go-Lucky, 2008 (source: YouTube user iPhilR)
This is my first time posting a film as my art o’ the day, so please be kind! My idea is to gradually use this daily post as a way to cover not just artworks in frames or carved from materials/ placed on pedestals, but eventually anything created, any human or non-human (i.e., flora, fauna, natural formations) expression capable of communicating (or opening us up to our own internal wellsprings of) emotional & spiritual truth. SO: grandstanding statement of purpose out of the way, let’s talk about this film.
Backstory: Sally Hawkins’ Poppy is a marvel of loopy, playful bounce throughout the film, always keeping you guessing to what extent she’s genetically gifted enough to be able to weather life’s inevitable disappointments and tragedies with a shrug and off-color joke or whether her winks & heel-clicks are just effective cover for a deeper vulnerability, keeping people at bay with an elaborate peacocking of giggles (not that these two are the only explanations possible, but if they were, I’d be much more in the former camp, though I’ve read and heard good arguments for the latter).
Meanwhile Marsan plays Scott, an emotionally stunted, angry, anxious, racist, lonely, maladjusted and clearly childhood-traumatized driving instructor. Poppy’s lessons with Scott occur at regular intervals throughout the film, the non-lesson film-time taken up by focused, revealing vignettes featuring Poppy’s family, friends, Flamenco lessons, job as a kindergarten (or British equivalent) teacher, all of which leads to her gradual awakening to herself, what she wants, and the life-struggles & pain of others around her.
Prelims aside, what I really want to talk about are Hawkins and Marsan, what they do separately and together. The clip above shows when they first meet, and what could have just been a kind of Abbot & Costello / Moe & Curly study in straight-man/goofball comedy (the movie is billed, after all, as a comedy-drama; I’d reverse those descriptors, maybe put ‘comedy’ in quotes or reduce its font size a couple notches) quickly becomes something much more painful & real: an expertly-wrought tension between the two that’s so sustained & focused that I wanted to turn away as if I was watching some Fangoria-esque cover-your-eyes evisceration. Marsan is wounded & wrecked in ways Poppy will never be able to fix (as she can, say, begin to fix/intervene when a kid in her class begins to bully others), brush off, or rib/kid her way through. It’s in his eyes, in his mouth, in his intense discomfort and silences in the face of her tiniest attempts to find out about his life, or connect in the basic ways humans do (light flirting, questions about outside interests). His seething & the littlest hints we get of his intense yearning to connect tell you all you need to know about how difficult it is for him to simply be, and Marsan’s ability to make this man’s truly ugly outbursts come from a place of vast vulnerability is a sign of his serious talent. And all this tension happens against the backdrop of a gentle & whimsical score as if the scene were simply a quirky encounter.
As great as Marsan is, Hawkins’ Poppy is just as strong throughout the film. In this clip (and much moreso throughout the rest of the film) her sunniness is shot through with the subtlest shadows and flecks of gray, flecks made all the more striking and poignant because of our initial impression of her as an alien being of pure & unflappable joie de vivre. For example, note how she bristles & then flinches / looks around in discomfort when Scott begins his rant about teaching. The more time they spend with each other, the more Poppy begins to realize she’s in the presence of someone who isn’t just a little salty (like her flatmate, a best friend of many years who balances out Poppy’s skipping with dry but well-meaning smirk) but fundamentally fractured and on the brink of fullscale collapse. We cringe as Poppy returns again and again to subject herself to her driving-teacher’s bizarre tirades, obsessions & outbursts (all of which culminates in a harrowing scene near the movie’s end that I won’t give away — you simply need to see it for yourself). Why does Poppy do it? Is she trying to ‘fix’ Scott? Or just help him along by exposure to her sunnyness, give him some vitamin D, boost him a bit osmotically? Is she drawn to him because there are parts of her that hurt and are in pain too, and that this is the real teaching she wants, and that Scott’s unrestrained acting out of his unresolved traumas somehow brings her closer to parts of herself she’s afraid of but also drawn to?
It may be all of these or none, but whatever the reasons, Hawkins gives us the sense that Poppy can’t articulate to herself why she feels drawn to the red whirlpool of his pain and, more importantly, drawn to the unique way their personalities combine to truly unhealthy effect. You can feel Poppy & Scott re-enacting something that means something very big and old for each of them, something privately & mysteriously important, & which we witness and know as intensely true. This all can only come about because of beautiful acting, beautiful writing, beautiful directing.
All writing © copyright C. Way / Snailcrow.com 2011