It's uncommon these days to see movies with women in strong central roles. Rarer still, at least outside the tele-phantasmagoria of American politics, is the notion of woman as self-created, free-spirited, history-making individual.

This week, there are two. Max Ophüls's 1955 Lola Montès may be the ultimate portrait of a world-historical diva, albeit a martyred one (in a martyred movie), ultimately petrified by her own glamour. By contrast, the protag of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky is less distant star than warming ray of sunshine. There's nothing aristocratic about Poppy: She's a modestly gaudy people's heroine industriously repairing the social world, one frayed interaction at a time.

After extended cameos in two previous Leigh films (as a resourceful pop tart in All or Nothing and the date-raped rich girl in Vera Drake), fine-boned Sally Hawkins shoulders the burden of every scene as the most relentlessly upbeat 30-year-old kindergarten teacher ever to bicycle London's chartered streets. The blithe spirit who animates Happy-Go-Lucky is a priestess of positive polarization; she's either irritating or endearing—whichever you find her, you have to wonder why.

Happy, not crazy: Sally Hawkins
Simon Mein/Miramax Films
Happy, not crazy: Sally Hawkins

Details

Happy-Go-Lucky
Written and directed by Mike Leigh
Miramax Films
Opens October 10, Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinema
Lola Montès
Directed by Max Ophüls
Rialto Pictures
Opens October 10, Film Forum

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Poppy is introduced pedaling through traffic, grin on her face and hair in the wind. Idly browsing a bookstore (and utterly failing to engage the surly clerk), she spots a title on the shelf and chirps, "The Road to Reality—don't want to be going there." Indeed, Poppy can smile even when her bike is stolen: "Oh, no! I didn't even get a chance to say good-bye." And when she hurts her back in the course of a daily regimen on the trampoline, she's able to laugh through the pain. Poppy, in short, is a very cheerful girl, and that cheer is her good fortune.

Heroic optimism is a surprising ploy in the post-Soviet cosmos. Walking out of this daringly non-ironic movie, a less enthusiastic colleague characterized Poppy as "the Idiot"—as in the Dostoevsky novel. It's an illuminating comparison. Generous, guileless, and self-effacing to a fault, Dostoevsky's saintly Prince Myshkin has a catalytic effect on the fallen, grown-up society in which he moves. As does Leigh's "idiotic" heroine.

With her sharp features, toothy smile, and bright eyes, Hawkins has the creature cuteness of a Disney chipmunk. Her character is naturally friendly, pleased to make eye contact with strangers, an empathetic fount of jokey banter and playful innuendo. (Typically dressed in Fauvist floral prints, clashing textured tights, and high-heeled cowgirl boots, Poppy is also fun to watch—"She's a rainbow," as the Rolling Stones once sang with a sarcasm that the movie never even remotely approaches.) One ponders the mystery of Poppy's personality, waiting for the meds to wear off. They never do, although midway through the movie, there's a surprising flash of seriousness revealed in her response to an incident of schoolyard bullying.

Even more than most of Leigh's collectively developed films, Happy-Go-Lucky is a movie about an actor's performance. But it's also deeply concerned with the nature of pedagogy. Poppy not only teaches, she also learns. Leigh extracts maximum vaudeville from the wildly melodramatic flamenco class his protagonist attends, and unobtrusively constructs his narrative around her five lessons with the tightly wound, increasingly nutty driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan, another graduate of Vera Drake, in a furious, spittle-spewing performance that equals Hawkins's in intensity). Amiable as she is, Poppy can't help teasing this paranoid crank—"You celebrate chaos!" he shouts at her—but she does learn from their interactions, each of which has a message all its own building up to the movie's climax.

Poppy's innate concern, her refusal to judge and willingness to listen to anybody, is demonstrated when she meets another sort of madman in a spot desolate enough to serve as the set for a Beckett play. These encounters—spluttering Scott and a muttering vagrant—afford the movie's most intense interactions, although Poppy, who never breaks character, is always relating. She's given an equally good-natured and unflappable housemate (Alexis Zegerman) with whom to riff, as well as pupils, sisters—one clownishly sullen, the other fearfully judgmental—and colleagues of both genders.

As the critic Harold Rosenberg observed, Dostoevsky's Myshkin is "less a dramatic figure than an edifying one," and, in writing The Idiot, the author was urgently seeking something beyond art—namely that which "man can be." It would be unfair to burden the entertaining and occasionally glib Happy-Go-Lucky with such weighty intent, but, for all his reputation as a sour miserablist, Leigh has made some blatantly utopian movies—most obviously his paean to popular art, Topsy-Turvy, and, in a different register, the pro-choice passion play Vera Drake.

More than a few critics were troubled by the unrealistically safe saline abortions performed by Vera Drake's angelic outlaw heroine. But in opposing a criminal state, this warmhearted busybody embodied the promise of a more enlightened social order—the safe, reassuring abortionist of the future. So it is with the altruistic Poppy, whose adult devotion to education and occasionally expressed childish desire to fly seem to herald a further stage of human development.

Will this lighthearted creature fulfill her earthly mission? At the very least, the spectacle of Poppy's devotion and desire, not to mention her all-around sunny disposish, left this viewer feeling unaccountably happy—at least for the moment.

A legendary disaster on its initial release, and consequently one of the great causes célèbres of auteurist film criticism, Max Ophüls's Franco-German swan song Lola Montès follows a record third inclusion in the New York Film Festival with a two-week Film Forum run.

Ophüls's ironic super-production—as garish and vulgar as any mid-'50s Hollywood costume drama, albeit knowingly so—takes the career of the 19th-century adventuress Lola Montès as the basis for a meditation on the spectacle of stardom. A new digital restoration, including five "lost" minutes, only heightens this pop-art premise. The restored version has the cleaned-up color and hyper-real clarity of a refurbished antique diner. Exploding out from the screen, Martine Carol's lips put the redness in red.

The opening sequence is filled with promise, camera and characters cavorting around static Lola (Carol), the central attraction in a fantastic circus. But the movie grinds to a halt 10 minutes into the delirium, with the diva and her current lover, Franz Liszt, ensconced in a deluxe traveling carriage, and never after regains its momentum. There are moments when Ophüls's deconstructed historical pageant anticipates more radical films by Manoel de Oliviera and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, who made a movie about Lola's royal lover, Mad Ludwig of Bavaria. But, a lesser film than Ophüls's Letter to an Unknown Woman, let alone The Earrings of Madame D . . . , Lola Montès can be shockingly inert—a stale sachertorte that might have worked as a silent film or an awkward early talkie.

Much of the blame goes to Carol, a scandal-prone screen siren foisted on the production. While is it is possible to understand the spell her Lola casts over Peter Ustinov's perspiring ringmaster or Anton Walbrook's unexpectedly sympathetic Ludwig, it's impossible to see this impassive beauty as a force of nature capable of rupturing the social order. Her failure is contagious: Ophüls's climactic tracking shot is less majestic than abstractly poignant in leaving the stolid star surrounded by her gawking public.

Of course, Lola Montès is also a footnote in the psychohistory of taste. Like its subject, the movie demonstrated the power to cloud men's minds. After its 1963 showing at the NYFF, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris announced he'd stake his critical reputation ("such as it is") on the proposition that Lola Montès was the greatest film of all time—repeating the assertion throughout the decade. Not until Pauline Kael pledged allegiance to The Last Tango in Paris in 1973 would an American critic fall so hard. It was, to cite another Ophüls title, a reckless moment.

Sarris wasn't blind to the movie's faults; indeed, he came to appreciate Ophüls's self-reflexive extravaganza as an allegory for his own passion: "I fully understand why most other viewers can never love Lola as devotedly as I." The sincerity of this true confession notwithstanding, Sarris's enthusiasm effectively turned the movie itself into Martine Carol. The critic's elevation of personal taste to cosmic judgment lumbered the object of his admiration with expectations impossible to fulfill.

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