If Billy Wilder’s influential films of the 1940s and ’50s were marked by the grime and chaos of reality, his work in the ’60s represented a move toward crafting hermetic cinematic worlds around a few immaculately art-directed settings. The milieu of Irma la Douce is a single-block synecdoche of a larger human landscape that’s only implied. What little we see of greater Paris here comes in a stage-setting montage of early-morning quietude, shuttling through panoramas of depopulated neighborhoods in the French capital before serving up as contrast the bustling red-light and meat-packing district where the story will set up camp. This district never sleeps, the narrator asserts, and Wilder realizes it as a Technicolor dream of multidirectional hubbub, with jovial prostitutes, mustachioed tourists, working-class ruffians, and a laissez-faire police force all coexisting in a graceful ballet.
Right in the center of this commotion, occupying prime real estate in front of the Hotel Casanova where she solicits johns with a mix of girlish sweetness and no-nonsense wit, is Irma (Shirley MacLaine). Wilder presents the entire battalion of sex workers who vie against one another on the narrow street with a sympathetic eye—and almost even an air of proto-feminist exaltation. These women go about their business with a chip on their shoulder, talking back to patrons when they need to and using break time to congregate at the cramped corner bar for joyous revelries. The amiable work environment is spoiled only by thuggish pimps like Hippolyte (Bruce Yarnell) and stuffy cops like Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon), the former Irma’s employer and the latter her admirer, though only before he realizes what she does for a living.
New to the force, Nestor performs a raid at the Casanova without realizing the local patrol’s policy of tacit non-intervention and soon finds himself canned. Jobless and made the fool for his reactionary values, he returns to the neighborhood with the hope of emancipating Irma from what he sees as a sordid métier. The hesitant romance that ensues isn’t entirely convincing, not just because it skips along so quickly, but also because of the irreconcilable fissure in Nestor and Irma’s worldviews: He embodies a stiff traditionalism that smacks more of the Rust Belt than the Seine, and she possesses a steely self-reliance that runs counter to old-school gender standards. When Nestor moves in to Irma’s modest flat (which feels like a neighboring unit to the one in Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, complete with the elongated window overlooking the street), she expects to remain the breadwinner, though in doing so provokes Nestor’s discomfort with not only her labor of necessity, but her disregard for the institutions he assumes as normal.
What follows, at first, is more or less par for the course with Wilder’s comedies, a smart-alecky sendup of bourgeois mores delivered with florid screwball banter and more than a few plot curlicues. Lemmon dons a wealthy Englishman’s garb and a handlebar moustache, trying to impersonate a particularly generous donor to Irma’s business twice a week in order to diminish her need for street-walking, a role he’ll fund with back-breaking secret graveyard shifts at the food-processing factory nearby. It’s a scheme so convoluted that it involves a trap door and a mechanical underground platform just for fun, and naturally it only works well for about one go-round.
Sleep-deprived and delirious from juggling his dual façades, Nestor grows irritable and remote, culminating in his slapping of Irma during a moment of alcohol-fueled instability. It’s at this point that Irma la Douce might have followed through on its socially progressive bona fides and reasserted Irma as the dignified heroine free from the whims of the fragile men around her; instead, Wilder’s screenplay works overtime to reunite Nestor and Irma, and in doing so it builds to an affirmation of those exact bourgeois values that Nestor was earlier burlesqued for clinging to.
That Irma la Douce doesn’t ultimately amount to some radical female-powered romp isn’t exactly a shock to the system, but alongside the delightfully risqué Ernst Lubitsch comedies to which the film is often indebted or even Wilder’s own cathartic Some Like It Hot, which celebrates polyamorous friskiness, the film’s backtracking is disappointing. There’s also the issue of its long-windedness and laborious staging, which are hardly Lubitschean. Though Wilder was capable of excelling with staccato editing patterns and clever ellipses, he’s working here in the studious widescreen mode of later dramas like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes or even Fedora, with meticulous dolly moves and a few too many static one-on-one setups. Still, what endures is the piquant, overstuffed art direction, which communicates not so much Paris in its concrete form and social reality than a Paris of Wilder’s unruly imagination, where the streets are always slick with a fresh splash of rain, every shop exudes a charming design sense, and the masses cohabit with all the giddy pleasure of dormitory rats.
Compared to Olive Films’s release of Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid three years ago, this is a somewhat disappointing presentation from Kino Lorber. The image quality is serviceable though never as sharp or saturated as one hopes for it to be—and for a film that’s so rich with color and detailed set design, it’s easy to crave that additional pop. Same goes for the soundtrack, in which certain stretches of dialogue sound as though they’re being amplified through a layer of dust. Fortunately, these egregious flaws are limited, and the more elaborate, ensemble-driven set pieces—like a boisterous musical sequence at a café—seem to have been more carefully mastered.
An original trailer and pair of commentary tracks from Joseph McBride and Kat Ellinger are the only extras here, though the context and analysis provided by both film historians is estimable. The former fleshes out Irma la Douce’s place in Billy Wilder’s career from an auteurist standpoint, while the latter notably provides a thorough appreciation of Shirley MacLaine in the film.
If not exactly an endearing experience on the whole, Irma la Douce is a fine example of Billy Wilder’s mid-career eccentricity and cosmopolitan curiosity.