When asked by the acclaimed Hungarian-born production designer Alexandre Trauner to explain his latest project in a single sentence, Billy Wilder pithily summed up what turned out to be the most financially profitable movie of his career, Irma La Douce, as “the story of a man who is jealous of himself”. This almost facetiously paradoxical prescription applies to a film that, if one were to be forced into assigning it a more general descriptive label, would broadly have to be defined by the somewhat dubious phrase ‘sex comedy’. It slots into Wilder’s prestigious filmography among a string of romantic comedies Wilder began regularly producing in Hollywood after he was teamed up in 1957 with a new writing partner, I.A.L Diamond, for the Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper-starring Love in the Afternoon. This marked the beginning of a long-term writing-partnership that soon spawned two of Wilder’s greatest classics: Some Like it Hot and The Apartment –- the two films responsible for the pair coming to be renowned for their ability to push the Hollywood production code to its limits with their instinctive, uniquely acerbic attitude to the foibles of human nature; and a tendency to incorporate transgressive themes into a popular genre more usually associated, in the public mind, with escapist frivolity.
But by the time Irma La Douce came around in 1963, the boundaries previously defining what it was and was not acceptable to portray on film were already in the process of breaking down completely. Wilder’s forte had always been his penchant for introducing into his work moods and themes which at the time often didn’t feel like they had a right to belong in the romantic comedy subgenre at all whilst still always managing to work, broadly speaking, within the strictures and codes that defined that subgenre. Irma La Douce saw a Hollywood old hand attempting to adapt filmmaking habits formed during a career in which sophistication, wit and a certain subtlety had always been necessary requirements for smoothing over the more contentious or subversive themes his films often dealt with below the surface, and apply them to a story broaching a subject matter for which there didn’t appear to be much call for sophistication, wit or subtlety: namely prostitution. Furthermore, he was attempting this on the cusp of a period when all the rules previously governing what it was or wasn't contentious to show on cinema screens were about to be radically overhauled, if not thrown away completely. 1963 was, after all, also the year that saw Jayne Mansfield appear in the first nude scene in a mainstream Hollywood picture since the Pre-Code era -- for the film Promises! Promises! -- exploiting a brief period before the end of the Hays Code and the MPAA film rating system becoming an effective alternative. Marilyn Monroe would have earned the distinction herself the previous year if her nude swim scene in George Cukor’s abandoned Something’s Got To Give had ever seen the light of day, but elsewhere in Europe sex comedies and dramas were already way ahead of Hollywood in tackling such risqué subject matter. There were very few qualms about portraying nudity and sex on the big screen in European cinema at this point.
Wilder’s approach to the conundrum is uniquely interesting, and, although he later publicly judged Irma La Douce to have been an artistic failure (despite its commercial success) because the comedy and the conventions the film inhabits had been rendered just a little too broadly, it is in fact precisely the cover provided by this broad-brush approach to the material which also allows Wilder the freedom to seriously interrogate, without alienating his audiences, some unspoken emotional truths that lie hiding in plain sight behind the otherwise colourful frivolities inherent to his treatment of the material. It’s the implicit assertion informing Wilder’s approach with this film that these truths don’t just apply to this particular story’s cast of prostitutes and their relationships, (which are depicted within a heavily stylised milieu) with clients and pimps, but to any of us who have similarly to negotiate the gap between an identity largely imposed upon us by the societal norms that have been established among our peers (and by the institutions that govern and impinge our lives in other forms) and the private identity it is also possible to construct for oneself in the act of indulging a life of fantasy –- in other words, the film is talking about a situation that has the potential to be applicable to pretty much all of us. With Irma La Douce Wilder is presenting his viewers with an apparently very particular situation, dependent upon an absurdist parade of comic exaggerations, misunderstandings and ridiculous deceptions. But although apparently limited by its exotic circumstances and particularities, the reality is that this film is every bit as biting an existential expose of the hypocrisies that determine the petite bourgeoisie lifestyle as anything in the oeuvre of late-period Luis Buñuel. The difference is that with Wilder it comes garbed in an approachability informed by the language of a comedy painted in the ravishing hues of a gaudy Technicolor Hollywood musical; and in which the likeable comic screen personas of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine -- the stars of Billy Wilder’s irresistible romantic comedy masterpiece The Apartment -- have been invited to hold court for us in a film made in an increasingly permissive age, where the director could have just 'let it all hang out'. Wilder remarked about the movie how his aim was to “strike a happy medium between Tennessee Williams and Walt Disney” -- a telling contrast, and, despite the director’s own reservations about the film in later years, a very accurate description of its unique qualities
The picture’s origins as a stage musical lie at the very heart of our understanding of how Wilder’s idiosyncratic approach to tone in this movie came to be established. The story was adapted from a French musical which first opened in Paris in November 1956 and then ran for four years at the Théâtre Gramont. A Peter Brook-directed London production opened a year and a half into the Paris run at the Lyric Theatre in the West End, and became even more successful than its French predecessor. For its film incarnation, Wilder was required by his producers the Mirisch brothers (who scuttled his plans to make this another black-and-white outing) to film in 2.35:1 scope Technicolor, mimicking in every way the larger-than-life zest familiar to countless MGM musicals from the same period. This was a much bigger deal for Wilder than it might have been for many other directors at this time since Wilder was someone who had always been and would continue to be extremely averse to filming in colour at all, and had done so only sporadically until late into his career. At the time of the filming of Irma La Douce Wilder judged his least successful venture thus far to have been the lacklustre 1948 Bing Crosby musical The Emperor Waltz … and yet here he was again, many years later, faced with the prospect of making another Technicolor musical!
Or at least that was originally the intention … Quite soon into the production process, Wilder and Diamond decided to completely ditch all of the production’s original songs. This was the divisive and seemingly insane decision that turns out to be either the film’s greatest strength or its undoing, depending on your position regarding such matters. It can be viewed as a pretty radical, not to say extremely brave, artistic decision: after all, Alexandre Breffort’s libretto and lyrics had been complimented in the original stage production by the melodies of the much-admired Marguerite Monnot: a former classically trained Concert pianist who turned to the composition of popular music for a living after a bout of ill-health put paid to her flourishing concert hall career. Monnot was, thereafter, responsible for writing the popular French standard L’Etranger and had since become well-known for an extremely successful collaborative song-writing partnership with Edith Piaf in the 1940s.
It seems like a crazy decision to attempt to make a musical without the actual songs, and especially foolhardy to throw out the songs of one of the French stage’s most successful songwriters -- but something very unusual and subtle occurs in the transformation the decision enables. The film still retains the stylised look and the general tone of a Hollywood musical, based around the fundamental suspension of disbelief necessary for acceptance of the convention that characters are allowed to directly express their feelings in communion with the audience by bursting into song. But this is a film in which role-play is central to existence, and in which the characters often aren’t able to express themselves openly because of the particularities of the role their societal position requires them to inhabit or to attempt to fulfil. In other words, the film presents the audience with personalities who seem to exist in every particular as characters from a big screen musical, yet who have had their ‘natural’ ability to express themselves through song removed by the circumstances defining their societal position in the narrative. Wilder’s biographer Ed Sikov put it best in On Sunset Boulevard, his book on the director’s career in cinema:
The wonderful thing about Hollywood musicals is that characters can tap immediately into their emotional lives by opening their mouths and singing. The drab constraints of everyday life give way to melody, and often the more sentimental the song the more affecting the moment. Wilder does not permit his characters such easy access. Love, joy, regret, despair, bliss, triumph – these are the mainstays of the musical comedy, but for Billy they’re too quick, easy, and pretty. In Irma La Douce he uses orchestral themes to underscore what’s going on in his characters’ hearts, but he doesn’t give these hearts the freedom to express it directly.
The ‘orchestral underscoring’ mentioned above is the subtle work of composer André Previn, who, throughout the picture brilliantly quotes Monnot’s original melodies in his score, weaving the emotional colour of the missing songs into the fabric of the performances the characters themselves are frequently depicted giving for the benefit of each other in the narrative, thus stressing how what they say to each other is not necessarily what they feel. A romantic pathos emerges that seems to exist in the grain that contrasts these two modes of expression. While it can, by this method, give a subtle but clear-eyed account of the foibles and imaginings, disguises and self-deceptions that underlie human relationships of all types, the movie, in other areas, fully embraces the freedom imparted by the musical form it has otherwise abandoned to broach extremes of human behaviour whilst still maintaining its air of frivolity and lightness. Comedy and violence and exploitation are, like Lemmon and MacLaine’s mismatched coupling in this film, strange bedfellows indeed all the way through it; while the movie’s moments of comedy are frequently dominated by absurdity and unrealistic interactions which are allowed to stray far beyond the threshold usually constraining those of other romantic comedies. The running joke that starts with Lemmon placating Irma’s feisty pet dog Coquette (which hates him) by giving it champagne to drink so that he can woo her in peace, reaches a crescendo of absurdity that would never be acceptable in any normal picture of this type when Irma seriously comes to believe -- after a series of incidents in which we see the dog passed out face-down in her doggie bowl on the counter of a bar or propped up groggily against an empty champagne bottle at the foot of Irma’s bed -- that Coquette is a secret alcoholic: “I think she drinks,” Irma whispers conspiratorially at one point to Lord X (who is, in fact, Lemmon in disguise); “I keep finding empty bottles under the bed!” This is an absurdist comic scenario being played totally for laughs (in reality, Lemmon’s treatment of the mutt would denote unspeakable cruelty), that seems to completely undermine any possibility of an emotional truth ever being addressed in the movie. Yet Wilder is still operating throughout the film on the same heightened plane of reality occupied by the Musical, where metaphor allows for all kinds of liberties to be taken with realism. Given the huge commercial success that Wilder enjoyed with Irma La Douce in the US., despite its obvious attempt to link surviving in a colourful yet chronologically unspecified world of French prostitutes and their ‘mercs’ (pimps) with the compromises we all have to make in our lives, it’s probably true that the exotic setting and unreal tone allowed audiences to turn a blind eye to these stark particularities. This is one instance where Wilder got to have it both ways – unlike with Kiss Me Stupid where viewers were turned off by the cynicism once they saw that it was unambiguously being directed at them.
At the centre of everything, though, and providing the movie with its heart and its soul, is the central relationship between Jack Lemmon’s character, the naïve, initially prudish, rules-bound policeman, Nestor Patou, and Shirley MacLaine’s experienced career prostitute, Irma La Douce. Patou finds himself ‘promoted’ from basic park patrolling duties at Bois de Boulogne into a world for which he is utterly ill-equipped, defined by its deception and corruption. No-one, apparently, informs him about what actually goes on inside the Hotel Casanova and the immediate environs of his beat, nor that his colleagues at the station know all about it and are being paid by the pimps who hang out alongside the working girls and their clients at Moustache’s bar, to turn a blind eye. When, after some comic misunderstandings at the start of the film, Patou finally realises the truth and tries to arrest practically the entire neighbourhood, he ends up being first ritually humiliated by the prostitutes (who laugh at his naivety) and then sacked by his superiors, since his inspector turns out to be one of the clients caught in a compromising situation and arrested when Patou raids the hotel. Nestor Patou starts out in the film as someone who is innately secure and confident about his identity, and who follows the rules of his society and of the profession that defines his role in it to the letter. The problem is that the official rules are not the same rules that everyone else around him in practice recognises and observes. This leaves him, essentially, alienated ... and having to re-construct himself anew. He comes to do so with Irma’s help after, unlike her colleagues, she senses a kernel of kindness and honesty in his affectless innocence which intrigues her and leads to her taking him in and putting a roof over his head after he defends her against some rough handling by Hippolyte, her flashy but unfeeling pimp (Bruce Yarnell).
In tracing the evolution of Nestor and Irma’s tentative love affair as it develops in these rather unpromising surroundings, Wilder and Diamond constantly perform a dexterous screenwriting high-wire act that calls upon their screenplay to strike a nimble balance between full-blown romanticism and world-weary cynicism. It’s a trick that also revels in the paradoxes and contradictions thrown up by a tale so rooted in Wilder’s obsession with narrative deceptions and the self-defeating disguises one has to assume in pursuit of romantic love. On their first night together in Irma’s small but cosy upstairs apartment, after a shy and downcast Nestor has been cast out into the street, he wearily observes during one of the movie’s sweetest scenes between the two, how “if you hate somebody you can do that anytime, anyplace. But if you like somebody, you’ve got to hide in dark corners.” This paradoxical insight becomes the key to understanding the increasingly whimsical and surreal events which come to be integral to the irony-laden narrative. The career-hardened cynic Irma, who seemingly has a different identity for each and every client, falls in love with Nestor’s simplicity, integrity and honesty as she is the product of a world severely lacking in all three of those qualities. Because she is in love with him, and because he has not a penny to his name, Irma yearns to provide for Nestor, and the only way she can do so is by making him her pimp -- a complete reversal of the usual power dynamic that defines this most problematic of working relationships.
The workings of their particular relationship bring about a sense of internal crisis in Nestor’s idea of his proper place in the world, which leads him into an elaborate deception which then threatens everything that brought the two of them together in the first place. Suffering from chronic jealously at the thought of Irma being with other men, and unable to cope with the knowledge that she is now working the streets more for his benefit than her own, Nestor engages the services of the bar owner Moustache (Lou Jacobi) in helping him develop a disguise as a British Lord whom Nestor intends will become Irma’s only client by being so rich that there is no need for her to sleep with anyone else. Lord X is also sexually impotent and will pay Irma a fortune merely to play cards and listen to his (entirely fictitious) woes concerning Lady X and her alleged affairs. Of course, being penniless, Nestor doesn’t have the money himself to pay Irma, so he borrows it from Moustache and then works night shifts at the market preparing the next day’s meat, vegetables and fruit for the various stalls the following morning so that he can pay back what he owes at the end of each month. But this plan only ends up leaving Irma feeling neglected because Nestor is always so tired from secretly working all night long that he pays her no attention and just wants to sleep all morning after his shift ends at dawn, and he has to sneak back in through the window of her apartment before she wakes.
This, of course, is an ironic reversal of just the kind of situation that would normally end a relationship. Usually, husbands and boyfriends might furtively sneak out to visit prostitutes at night or conduct an affair ... not go to work to earn an honest wage without their significant other (who is a prostitute) finding out about it! Even more ironically, when he has the chance to pretend to be someone else through the acting out of his rough ideas about how a British Lord might behave (which are entirely based on film clichés of Britishness regurgitated in an often almost stream-of-consciousness fashion) Nestor suddenly loses all his diffidence and becomes a charismatic, supremely confident and amusing individual whom Irma starts to fall for because Nestor has in the meantime become so distant. This is how the latter ends up becoming jealous of himself and decides he has to ‘kill off’ Lord X when he realises that his fake persona is more attractive than he is -- a turn of events which can only increase the levels of confusion and absurdity.
At the heart of it all is the question of just what identity truly is. Is Nestor Patou the naive, trusting policeman we encountered at the start of the film or is the romantic idealist who defends Irma’s honour after he loses that role his true self? Or is it the jealous cynic who engages in willful deception to such an extent that he fakes an entire identity in order to deceive his partner about his true desires? Everyone in this narrative can only be understood after we've taken on board the multifarious identities they need to assume throughout the course of the film. The intricacies and ironies all work themselves out in the end, of course, with a final scene set in a church during a wedding where the entire congregation is made up of prostitutes and pimps and policemen, and the bride gives birth thirty-seconds after tying the knot. How this kind of thing got past the Legion of Decency at the time is anyone’s guess, but times were indeed changing in 1963, and despite producer Hal Wallis’s moral outrage (“this is, without doubt, the filthiest thing I have ever seen on the screen” he raged), audiences lapped it up. If Wilder’s original intent to cast Charles Laughton in the role of Moustache had been possible (the actor died before production got underway) Irma La Douce might have been an even better film than it is -- but in the event, this is still a much more entertaining picture than its critical reputation had previously suggested, and it deserves the recognition and rediscovery it will now hopefully receive on the back of this exemplary new Blu-ray release from Eureka Entertainment. Lemmon is superb and gets to display a much wider range than usual, including a talent for Buster Keaton-style slap-stick; while MacLaine is delightful throughout -- moving effortlessly between tender bemusement at Nestor’s gauche displays of romantic simplicity, and screwball exuberance ... Her interactions with ‘Lord X’ in particular show Wilder and Diamond’s dialogue at its most sparkling and inventive.
Irma La Douce looks superb after having a 4K upgrade for this release in the UK as part of the Masters of Cinema series. Interesting contrasts in perspective can be gleaned by comparing the views of Kat Ellinger and Joseph McBride in their respective commentaries … both are Wilder fanatics but coming from different generations and with fascinatingly different perspectives and views on the film’s themes and about Wilder’s approach to the subject matter. Neil Sinyard provides an informative historical overview of the movie’s production in a new video interview, and the animated trailer produced at the time to advertise the movie is also included on the disc. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Richard Combs and a selection of rare archive photographic material.