Film Review: Irma la Douce (1963)

Anyone familiar with the classic film The Apartment would think that a reunion between its director Billy Wilder, and its stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine would produce another charmer. Well, I’m here blabbering on the Internet to tell you that you’re dead wrong. Reuniting just three years after their mega-hit, this distinguished trio produced the 1963 “comedy” Irma la Douce, starring MacLaine as the titular Irma, and Lemmon as a cop who falls in love with her. While benefiting from Wilder’s superhuman pen, not to mention the easy (perhaps too easy) chemistry between its stars, Irma la Douce falters because its characters and situations are not likable or relatable. Hell, they’re barely tolerable.

Ok, so Irma la Douce isn’t The Apartment 2. What is it you ask? Well, Wilder’s film (based on the play by Alexandre Breffort) does mine similar territory, focusing on a world where women are again put through the ringer by men. MacLaine plays a down but not out prostitute named Irma, who lives apparently to take care of her small dog, sleep with Parisian men, and willfully hand over all of her hard-earned cash to a brutal pimp named Hippolyte (Bruce Yarnell).

Lemmon is Nestor Patou, a naive, sanctimonious cop who lives for raining down moral remonstrances on the city’s ladies of the night. After this pig erroneously decides to run in the women who work the city’s red light district – which has been unofficially sanctioned by the city – Patou finds himself fired, humiliated, homeless and basically friendless. Things change however through a chance meeting with Irma, who befriends Partou and, after he comically beats up Hippolyte, begins to work for him as well.

These early scenes represent Wilder’s cinema at its very best, defined by the director’s rapid-fire dialogue, wonderful staging of physical humor, and Lemmon and MacLaine inhabiting their roles with an effortless charisma. This section of the film is also well paced, with the story’s basic premise being established with a much appreciated sense of brevity.

However, following the fight scene between Lemmon’s Patou and Yarnell’s Hippolyte things begin deteriorating quickly. Lemmon’s and MacLaine’s characters become romantically involved, and Patou quickly develops a full-blown sexual obsession with Irma, becoming enraged at the thought of her carrying on her profession.

This creates a multitude of problems for the film. It leads into its most elaborate comedic bit, which involves Patou creating a rich fictional persona (called Lord X.) and becoming Irma’s only customer. In order to accomplish this, Patou enlists the help of a bar-keep simply named Moustache (Lou Jacobi) who advances him a sum of $500 franks to pay Irma. He does this under the impression that Patou, being her pimp, would be given the money and then be able to pay him back.

The problem however is that these scenes, while designed to provide a sense of whimsy and farce, are just not that funny. Lemmon’s plays Lord X. with the most over-the-top English accent of all time, and dons a fake beard and a pair of Dustin Hoffman-like chompers. It’s certainly a grotesque performance, but not necessarily all that captivating or amusing. Of course, these dubious acting choices pale in comparison to what these scenes do to the film’s length. At nearly two and a half hours Irma la Douce is dreadfully overlong, and Wilder can be partially blamed for how his focus on Patou’s elaborate ruse bogs his film down.

However, far more repellent than any of Lord X’s mugging is the film’s basic stance on male and female relations, and its world in general. Once Lemmon’s Patou transfers into the role of Irma’s pimp and boyfriend, any endearing qualities he might have had quickly dissipate. Patou becomes an irascible, jealous, patriarchal and all around possessive creep by mid-film, spending all his time pontificating about how he is going to kill anyone who touches Irma.

Worse still is that MacLaine’s title character, while beautiful and semi-likable, almost never asserts herself or rails against the system in which she operates. Unlike The Apartment, where MacLaine’s Fran at least seemed discontented with the foul treatment she was receiving at the weathered hands of Frank MacMurray’s character, Irma is completely plugged into her world of exploitation. Perhaps one of the saddest scenes is when Patou initially recoils at Irma’s assumption that he will become her new pimp. She bursts into tears in response, and begins to wail about how the other working girls will ridicule her for not supporting her man.

This is the type of tone-deaf buffoonery that dominates the film, which espouses a dated and somewhat awful perspective on mid-century womanhood that cannot be denied. Unfortunately, this stance is personified by the film’s lead characters, which makes it nearly impossible to become fully invested in their plights.

One can see this most clearly near the film’s ending, where (after promising to marry her) Patou says to Irma that her journey from street-walker to a future wife and mother will be a “miracle.” The way that this line is articulated by Lemmon – usually such a precise and intelligent actor – is the most grating part of the scene. His Patou seems to believe that the line is a testament to the great, transforming love shared between Irma and himself. However, it’s a transformation that clearly has to be on his terms. It’s an upsetting stance that unfortunately is supported by the film.  It basically says that women can be legitimized, but only if they get back in the kitchen and remain barefoot and pregnant.

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