The Way of Flirting

2283169345_c2d4b343ac_oPhoto by Eddie Wong.

 John Tarrant introduces a modern Bodhisattva of Compassion, as found in Mike Leigh’s latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky.

Question: How does the Bodhisattva of great compassion use all those hands and eyes?
Answer: It’s like reaching behind you for a pillow in the night.

Guanyin, Kanzeon, Tara — under various names the Bodhisattva of Compassion has one of the few good female roles in popular Buddhism. She has a thousand hands which means she does things; she doesn’t just stand around and look peaceful and cute. Mayumi Oda gave me a print to use in our kitchen at retreats in which Guanyin has egg beaters and spatulas in her hands. It’s a vision of work as fun.

Mike Leigh’s film Happy-Go-Lucky is based around a Bodhisattva of this type. His way of developing a film is to work up characters in rehearsal; it is done individually at first and then your character meets another character and they start talking.

This is itself interesting; you start from zero and leap into the unknown together which is what life always seems like to me. The together part is the optional bit and the impulse to connect is represented by the main character, Poppy.

Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins) is a North Londoner approaching 30. She can’t stop talking, is addicted to double entendres and to saying the obvious — “nice day for it” — and the clichéd –“let’s go, gigolo” (said when she gets in a car) — and thinks she’s hilarious. Her conversational style extends to the visual, too — she has a chiropractic treatment in a coral-colored bra, yellow underwear, and blue, see-through lace stockings. She can’t stop flirting.

Leigh is a director who achieved escape velocity from Manchester and likes to explore the idea that any rigidity of mind is a prejudice, a terrible disability that leads you to miss out on life, something he would like you not to do. He is sometimes subtle about this; he will set up an expectation in the audience’s mind and then help us to escape it. This makes him an interesting director if you care about how people learn and change. Poppy, as she is revealed, turns out to be a perceptive, skillful and intelligent grade school teacher. She loves helping and understanding people and is not intimidated by their daunting qualities. Naturally this is highly irritating to some people who are quite happy being daunting.

Poppy’s character was built from the premise that she doesn’t judge others and doesn’t judge herself. She comes out of a bookstore to find that her bicycle has been stolen and says to herself, “Oh no. Come on,” as if she can conjure it back into the spot it occupied when she left it. Then, she says, “I didn’t even say goodbye.” And it’s over with, she goes on.

The big interaction is with her driving instructor, Scott. The actors improvise their scenes in the instructor’s car while the director lies down out of sight in the back seat. Scott’s character is driven by being afraid of Poppy’s warmth while attracted to it. The more open and amusing she, is the more excruciating Scott finds her.

When Scott’s character was being developed the actor (Eddie Marsan) started with the thought that he would be deeply troubled, as in Taxi Driver but, faced with Poppy’s warmth, the character became somewhat more within the social range of the human, though not at the lovable end of that range. He makes a fine test of Poppy’s magic powers of kindness.

The film is full of teaching situations and reflections on learning. Poppy preps for her class, she teaches geography, she learns to drive and gets lectured on pedagogy by her instructor. She learns flamenco, she brings in a social worker and a student learns not to hit other kids. She ends up in bed with the social worker of course, another learning experience that we were all hoping was going to happen.

Poppy is on a Bodhisattva’s journey through the world. She is there to bring others to understand kindness if they can bear it. In popular Buddhist legend, the Bodhisattva of Compassion reaches down into hell to touch the souls there. Poppy has an underworld night scene in which she meets a deranged tramp. She approaches him and talks with him and it seems as if it might be an unwise thing to do, but this is just showing us our prejudices. We can think that the world is dangerous when it’s fine. I’ve been out walking with Byron Katie and seen her stop and stroke the hair of a homeless person, and talk with him with great curiosity and enthusiasm and move on.

You might think that Poppy lives in a dream world but when you see how effective and focused she is, you realize that she is offering a different way to live. She’s not trying to be nice, she actually loves people and loves being a grade school teacher. Her way of not judging others and not judging herself comes down to a complete practice for living effectively and joyfully — and the flirting seems to be an essential part of the package. People actually learn things when they hang around with Poppy. There’s hope for us all.


  1. Elly Hudgins says

    I really enjoyed this movie. Not only did it project happiness, it made everyone in the audience happy as well. Let's spread some happiness!

  2. Sandra Etemad says

    Very interesting reflections on Happy Go Lucky. I enjoyed this article far more than I enjoyed the movie, however. Poppy's character seemed to me to compulsively draw attention to herself in a very manic way.

    Really, this is a great article, though, and maybe if I read it before seeing the movie I would have liked the movie a littie more. I felt that the actress way overacted Poppy. The cute scene with the bike, OK. Cute. But her manic, flirty, "I'm the center of the world. look at me! look at me!" energy got sooo tiring.

    I've noticed that that men seem to like this movie more than women. A male movie reviewer on Fresh Air really loved it and then Terry Gross talked about how irritating she found the main character. It seems to me that men fall for her character and women don't so much (I went with a group of four women and one man). Perhaps it's a "love it or hate it" movie, but the goofy thing almost killed me to watch it! I enjoyed John Tarrant's analysis of it more than I enjoyed the movie itself, for sure! He's a good writer and I like the way his mind works — using interesting stuff in the culture (Suze Orman, Happy-Go-Lucky) to write about. He's like a very good combination preacher/English literature major.
    – Show quoted text –

    • John Tarrant says

      That's really interesting and I disagree with Terry Gross. I think Leigh's point is to create a tension, and even a prejudice in the audience. And then, he asks us, 'Well, do you notice your prejudice?' Poppy is terrific at what she does and she flirts all the time. And she blesses and is kind to people who are outside the pale. Is this a problem? So the question becomes, will we forgive her for enjoying her life so much and being both competent and successful at attention seeking? Are we willing to be as kind and have as much fun?
      I noticed a lot of little touches in this direction in the movie. An example is the tramp. Poppy tries to give him money which he refuses. "Where will you sleep?" she asks. "In a bed," he says. He is pretty crazy and he is also doing fine. And my expectation and Poppy's are both reversed. Lots of those reversals in the film.

  3. says

    I'm so happy to see this portrait of a persephone/aphrodite bodhisattva. Although the shadow side of the achetype can be seductive manipulation (which women see through much more quickly than men since men are more apt to respond to this with their nether regions) her light side, which includes all beings in her juiciness, is so seldom acknowledged. I'd like to also give a shout out to the Artemis bodhisattva who couldn't care less about sex but finds her aliveness in the woods and creatures, and to the Hestia bodhisattva who finds magic in washing her dishes and silence.

  4. Jenny says

    Lets not forget that the bodhisattvas constant companion is always emptiness. Sorry to be so technical but I just can't help it.

  5. says

    While I enjoyed the film overall, the director's infatuation with the character (and possibly the lead actor as well) eventually made me feel like a voyeur. The lingering face shots, for instance, were uncomfortably close to the slow, brilliant Harry Potter smiles in those movies, the money shots calculated to appear in the movie poster and on the coffee mugs.

    Unfortunately, only Poppy is allowed to shine, and the demand that the audience adore this character who continually rolls her eyes and uses air quotes became oppressive. The director wants us to believe Poppy is special and magical, but the camera simply refuses to look at anyone else, or let anyone else have oxygen — with the exception of the flamenco teacher, whom I also enjoyed. It's a magic world, but one where most people have to be gray so Poppy can be brilliant.

    I know this column isn't a movie review, but since we're on the topic, the movie that worked better for me in this regard was "Amélie," which I did find magical and uplifting. The character was adorable, but the film didn't fawn over her unrelentingly. Amélie could shine, but she helped other people to shine as well. Poppy was more enigmatic, which I appreciated, and I could forgive her for provoking and diminishing so many of the gray characters.

  6. Bob Levitt says

    I enjoyed the movie, John Tarrant's article and the comments. What I appreciated about the movie was that I was unable to rest in a view of liking her or disliking her. It was uncomfortable to actually not know what I thought about her and that's unusual in a movie. Usually the movie pretty much tells you how to feel and one agrees or not. Maybe he was telling us but I'm not sure. I think that she was a Bodhisattva but she was no saint either. Why do things have to be black and white?. The early scene with the sullen guy in the bookstore bugged me because her approach of
    "Hey, cheer up, dude", so to speak, had a touch of aggression in it. She is so extroverted that she can't possibly meet the guy where he was so she probably made him more miserable. On the other hand, the scene with the tramp was really amazing. She was absolutely fearless and that's why she probably made a difference to the guy, at least for that night I bet. Any movie that gets you to think, as this blog demonstrates, is a good thing. It's very rare these days.

  7. says

    The article is graceful and insightful. But, like so many of Leigh's masterful movies, Happy Go Lucky invites multiple interpretations. For me, Poppy's "happiness" was pathological. It prevented her from experiencing intimacy, it put her in danger, and it forced everyone around her to carry the shadow for her. I felt she was a deeply troubled character, in great pain, who comes to realize during the course of the movie that maybe — just maybe — she can't force the world and people around her to compensate for her own sense of suffering and inadequacy.
    The Buddhist point of view may emphasize renunciation and compassion, but isn't the real starting point first experiencing our own pain, confusion, and aggression, and our limitations in regards to ourselves and others? Without acknowledgement of our own shadow, we are profoundly destructive in the world.
    I'd also like to say, with respect, that stroking the hair of a homeless person could be interpreted as a compassionate act or as an invasion of personal space. Does a state of homelessness necessarily imply a loss of personal agency and boundaries?
    Just thinking out loud here, not trying to be dogmatic.