Irma, Sweet Irma

Irma, Sweet Irma May 30, 2024

Shirley MacLaine, that is, Irma
Source: Flickr user oneredsf1

I’m flabbergasted Irma la Douce (1963) isn’t better known. Sure, as a Billy Wilder picture there’s steep competition. It’s not among his best. But it is unabashedly among his strangest, a risqué film for 2024 let alone 1963. I confess to not having seen the musical upon which it’s based, but Wilder’s experiment with Parisian farce works. Where else can you find pimp unions, prostitutes who act like husbands bringing home the bacon, and Jack Lemmon working as a failed cop turned accidental sexbroker?

I’m told many think Irma is too long. At over two-and-a-half hours, I can understand that criticism. Who needs epic length when you’ve got light fare? The japes hide direr social criticism, however. Jack Lemmon’s character begins as a half-rookie cop whose only previous beat was watching a children’s playground. He’s promoted to working the seedier parts of the city, including the red-light district where Shirley MacLaine’s Irma rules the roost. His raid on the local love hotel earns him nothing but a firing—it turns out his boss was inside. Nestor (Lemmon) comes back with his tail between his legs and ends up shacking up with Irma herself, who treats him like a 50s housewife; she’ll do the earning and he’ll stay put. He remains a “pimp” but in name only. The meaning of the terms has, at least in implied agency, reversed.

That’s the heart of the film: Lemmon’s learning to come to terms with his own masculinity. Bravado gets him nowhere; it leaves him defeated time and again. Irma knows who she is and what she wants. Her mother ruined her life with marriage to a regular, old worker, someone whose existence remains at the whims of bosses and markets. Sex, she knows, always sells. Former do-gooder that he is, Lemmon must make peace not only with her promiscuity but also with her assertiveness and independence.

Irma la Douce is funny. It seems rather light. But underneath it all is a social satire I didn’t expect—not even from a Wilder film. Plus, Lemmon and MacLaine are a delight—it’s The Apartment (1960) all over again.

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