After starring together in Billy Wilder‘s classic The Apartment, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine re-teamed again under Wilder’s direction for Irma la Douce. Once more, Lemmon plays a rather sexless young man with a naivety about the world that MacLaine’s character will re-adjust. In one another, they find something unexpected: love. Nestor (Lemmon) is a police officer. He saved a kid from drowning on his old beat, got a medal, and was reassigned to a tougher district. This new district is largely centered around the Hotel Casanova. It backs onto the food market, but the main appeal of this hotel are the prostitutes lining up outside who use it as their business address. Irma (MacLaine) is one such woman, posted up by the door with her trademark green stockings, a cigarette in her mouth, and a little dog in her arms. Nestor is intent on cleaning it up – after taking a bit too long to realize they were prostitutes – but things rarely go the way one would expect, especially in a Wilder film.
Wilder’s trademark cynicism can be found throughout, whether in the realities of prostitution with brutal “mecs” (pimps) running the girls or in the acknowledged police corruption/bribery that keeps this street alive. For most of the characters, they can hardly see past their own self-interest and even Nestor is guilty of the same. As he begins to fall for Irma and even becomes her new mec, he refuses to recognize that she actually enjoys her profession. Intent on changing her and “rescuing” her from the gutter, he is certainly guilty from a limited perspective. She, too, is not much better as she dolls him up in whatever she can afford as a sign of wealth to the other prostitutes. This is a world driven by what you wear, who you are, what clients you have, and how much one can draw in each night. Irma la Douce’s central gag is based around this same self-interest as Nestor dresses up as a wealthy Englishman who pays Irma enough to keep her all to himself and off the streets. While undoubtedly goofy and very much in the vein of Wilder’s more manic 1960s output – Irma la Douce would play nicely alongside One, Two, Three, Kiss Me, Stupid, or The Fortune Cookie with goofy deceptions at the center of all three – Irma la Douce’s whimsical cynicism is merely a defense against the sweet romance at its center. They have no idea how to handle it and may be in a world that is, as cafe owner Moustache (Lou Jacobi) says, “ total war,” but they are a charming match with one another.
It is this sentimental side draped with cynicism that makes Wilder so confounding and Irma la Douce so sweet. Akin to The Apartment in how it is all about horrible people out to get what they want without regard for anybody else, Irma la Douce’s world is that of pleasure, satisfaction, and violence at any cost. It is an unconventional place to find such love, even with a “hooker with a heart of gold” or a naive and inexperienced man at the center of its romance. As with any character in one of his films, both Nestor and Irma have strange ways of expressing their love. He deceives her and she works as a prostitute. For both, this the best way they know to show their affection. It is, thus, hard to call this an out-and-out romance given the portrayal of love as inherently driven out of pride, vanity, and self-interest. Yet, that is precisely what makes Irma la Douce so oddly special. Lemmon and MacLaine complement one another perfectly, whether in comedy or romance. His off-beat charm mixes with her streetwise wit to great results, helping Irma la Douce to ride through the cynicism to a rather upbeat finale.
Of course, to get there, they must adhere to another principle offered by Moustache, “To be overly honest in a dishonest world is like plucking a chicken against the wind… you’ll only wind up with a mouth full of feathers.” It is pessimistic to suggest as much, positing that one has to get a little dirt on them to get ahead, but the film backs this up at every turn. Irma la Douce dives into the worst of humankind, whether in the central deceit or even in murder with incompetent or corrupt police running about to muck up their world. The quote from Moustache is said early on to Nestor and it is something that serves as a guiding principle for him, especially once his upright honesty ends up costing him nearly everything. It is only through forgetting about his morality that he becomes something in this world. Irma does much of the same, not just as a prostitute but using fake stories to garner sympathy for her partners to up the tip they give her, as shown in a whirlwind opening montage that sets the tone for the film. Dishonest, perhaps, but she knows what she wants and she goes out to get it by any means necessary. This is a world that is a “total war” and there is no room for “conscientious objectors”, thus to fight fire with fire and embrace these backwards representations of their affection only makes sense. He will do anything to be with her and she will do anything to support him. It is taken to extremes, yet deeply felt and oddly touching. It is selfish, yet selfless at the time as Wilder strikes at the heart of love to show this strange concoction that makes up romance.
Irma la Douce is maybe an unconventional romance, but finding love in unusual spots is nothing uncommon for a Billy Wilder romance. For this couple, doing what it takes to provide for one another and to spend time with each other is all that matters, even if it means duplicity and acting in self-interest. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine have a great energy with one another, a perfect romantic contrast with the wide-eyed Lemmon and the worldly MacLaine coming together for a love story that turns love on its head.