[Film Review] Irma La Douce (1963)

Irma La Douce poster

Title: Irma La Douce
Year: 1963
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Director: Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder
I.A.L. Diamond
adapted from the play of Alexandre Breffort
Music: André Previn
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Jack Lemmon
Shirley MacLaine
Lou Jacobi
Bruce Yarnell
Herschel Bernardi
Hope Holiday
Joan Shawlee
Grace Lee Whitney
James Caan
Howard McNear
Louis Jourdan
Rating: 7.2/10

Billy Wilder’s shark-jumping screwball romp set in le quartier rouge of Paris, couples for the second time the riveting pair from THE APARTMENT (1960), Lemmon plays a goofball cop Nestor Patou, only soon to be discharged from his duty by dint of his impetuous intervention of the local sex industry, and becomes a pimp of the numero uno streetwalker, our titular Irma la douce (MacLaine).

Poules and their mecs, this is the basic bundle of the oldest profession, Nestor’s foolhardiness and knight errantry conquers Irma right on the spot, not to mention that he also physically defeats her abusive (now ex-)pimp Hippolyte the Ox (Yarnell), a set piece reminiscent of the early silent comedy sketches, rough-hewn, clumsy but laboriously funny. So now Nestor is the red-hot new mec, even been elected as the chairman of the MPPA (Mec’s Paris Protective Association), but like any man who has his manhood to protect, as much as he loves Irma, and vice versa, he cannot get over the fact that many a customer can share his darling love’s company and body for sexual pleasure, and he in fact lives off her for all the income.

A highly specious plan has been hatched with the aid of Moustache (Jacobi), the genial proprietor of the bar around the corner, whose past experiences enlivens the story with its running joke “and that’s another story” until a pretty nonsensical but zany finish to leave audience in utter astonishment and amusement.
What is the plan? Nester disguises himself as an ageing British gentleman Lord X, who will patronise Irma twice a week, each time offers her 500 francs (the money he would borrow from Moustache), so that, Irma doesn’t need to see any other customers thanks to the munificent gestures from Lord X, when Irma gives the money to Nestor, he will return the money back to Moustache.

Of course, the plan only sounds plausible on paper, the very first time, almost all the 500 has been squandered on champagnes for celebration. In order to earn extra money to pay back to Moustache, Nestor has to sneak out of their flat in the middle of night every day to work in the local food market, dealing with fish, pork, vegetables and fruits, which exhausts him and he must sneak back in the morning before Irma wakes up. That’s where the story goes berserk like a folly propelled by absurd incidents and drollness (followed by betrayal, murder allegation, prison break and a happy marriage where a new life is born just legitimately), up to a point, rationality will be completely thrown out of the window.

Marvellously, the viewer will not feel too much of being cheated or exasperated by the outright cop-out into a spuriousness-prone farce, mostly owing to two leading stars’ comic aptitude, Lemmon engages in with unswerving gusto, from strictly choreographed slapstick to onerous physical labour, to invite audience to stand by him and pat him on the back no matter how ridiculous the storyline unwinds; MacLaine, on the other hand, oozes deadly sexiness in the common working-girl-with-a-golden-heart formula, and occasionally, she can do the work of a head shrink. It is a pity that she receives an Oscar nomination while Lemmon misses, the competition in these two categories are clearly not on the same level, especially after Hollywood’s Golden Age, the quality of female roles has been drastically dwindled ever since. Moreover, Lou Jacobi should have walked away with at least an Oscar nomination for his firmly supportive but equally opportune scene-stealing act.

Among Wilder’s tremendous body of work, IRMA LA DOUCE doesn’t have any single chance to claim best, but instead, it preserves itself in a niche as an odd experiment whose sole objective is to give audience a buzz, and it has accomplished its goal with admirable dash, no one can deny, that’s something only can be manufactured with the help of a master-hand and intelligent-mind.

Irma La Douce 1963


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