Millions of tourists every year visit Paris. Some to see the sights, the famous locations. Some come to sample the French cuisine. Other to dance, drink and indulge. Then there are those looking for passion, desire and sexual satisfaction at the Hotel Casanova. At least they do in the world of Billy Wilder and Alexandre Breffort, who wrote the book of the musical the film is based on. A romantic comedy about a prostitute who falls in love with a policeman is light hearted and doesn’t forget about the actual romance despite circumstances.
Irma La Douce, or rather, Irma the Sweet, is a favourite prostitute at the infamous Hotel Casanova. But despite her many clients, her pimp slash boyfriend slash business manager is always harassing her for more money. One day she meets the newly transferred by the book policeman, Nestor, who raids the hotel, along with the clients, one being his superior who fires him. Broken, jobless and alone, Irma takes in Nestor and he soon becomes her new pimp slash boyfriend slash business manager. But unable to cope with Irma being with other men, he disguises himself as a wealthy elderly gentleman, ‘Lord X’ who offers her money to be his companion exclusively. However, in order to make the money ‘Lord X’ gives, Nestor works long hours at the food market. Suspicious of Nestor’s behaviour, Irma grows closer to ‘Lord X’. Meanwhile, Irma’s ex-pimp/boyfriend/business manager also is suspicious of who this ‘Lord X’ actually is.
Originally meant as a role for Marilyn Monroe, it’s difficult to think of anyone else as Irma other than Shirley MacLaine who is sweet, naïve yet street smart and savvy as she struts around the street with her little dog in her arms. Her signature green tights lighting up the dingy dirty doorways of her place of business. MacLaine seems to easily slip into the character of Irma but doesn’t become the cliched ‘tart with a heart’ at any point. Paired with Jack Lemmon, who again is brilliant as the up tight policeman, then down on his luck pimp and finally as the over the top caricature ‘Lord X’, The Apartment co-stars have great chemistry in both the comedic and romantic sense.
As one of the lesser talked about or widely screened Billy Wilder films, Irma La Douce definitely deserves to mentioned more frequently in line with Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. With such a convoluted story that would confuse anyone on paper but seen on the screen, it all makes perfect screwball sense. Whenever a story involves an unlikely but perfect pairing, declarations of love after admitting the murder of a non-existent person, plus some very 60s moments involving doing the twist on a counter top, the film definitely deserves more recognition.
Dir: Billy Wilder
Scr: Billy Wilder, I. A. L. Diamond, Alexandre Breffort
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine
DoP: Joseph LaShelle
Music: André Previn
Running time: 147 minutes
Irma La Douce is out on Blu-ray on 18th March