#24 in my Ranking of Billy Wilder movies.
This is the first Billy Wilder movie that feels overlong and unfocused, barely missing the mark. There’s a lot to really enjoy in Irma la Douce, but at two and a half hours, the movie doesn’t effectively fill its runtime creating distractions while inefficiently telling what should have been a rather simple story.
Jack Lemmon plays Nestor Patou, an earnest and honest police man who takes up his new beat at Les Halles, a large food market in Paris, where he meets Irma, played by Shirley MacLaine, and discovers that there is rampant lawbreaking all around him in the form of prostitutes and johns. Overly ambitious and honest, he takes in everyone including his new, never before introduced, superior officer who quickly dismisses Nestor from the service. Without a job, Nestor finds himself in a fight with Irma’s large and arrogant boyfriend whom he defeats in a long brawl. Irma takes up Nestor as her new boyfriend, determined to let him waste away his days on the fruits of her labor.
So is the setup of the film in which Nestor rankles with the situation, dealing with his bourgeois norms as Moustache, the proprietor of the local café, calls it. Nestor doesn’t like the idea of his girl taking johns every night. He feels like he should be the only one with her, and he gets an idea. If he creates an alternate persona and pays her enough money, she’ll only go to that persona, cast off the rest of the johns, and really only be with him. So, he puts on a costume and becomes Lord X, a wealthy Englishman who only wants to spend six hours playing solitaire and paying Irma five hundred francs for the pleasure.
It’s this section of the movie that has the most going for it. There’s a deep irony in Nestor working throughout the morning to make his money, doing every conceivable job in the food market, as Irma sleeps. He then uses the money he makes to pay Irma as Lord X who then gives the money back to Nestor for him to live off of. He’s supporting her in a traditional husband wife relationship, but she doesn’t realize it, thinking that she’s supporting him in an inverted wife husband relationship.
The movie then takes a turn into a new direction when Irma throws Nestor out because she thinks he’s tired all of the time due to Nestor sleeping with other girls. Not wanting to give up the game as Lord X, Nestor allows the fight to escalate. He then decides to kill Lord X, but the way he goes about it convinces Irma’s old boyfriend that Nestor actually did kill another person, sending Nestor to jail.
I’m not even at the end, and that’s a lot of plot for a movie that’s essentially a light farce that probably should have been told in 100 minutes. I just really feel like there’s too much. It’s a 100 minute movie squeezed into 150, and I think the extra runtime works against the film. It’s not that the different pieces don’t feel like they go together, but it just feels like the movie meanders from one plot line to the next. I know this was based on a musical and that musicals tend to have looser structures, so I wonder if this is a remnant of the original version of the story. The thematic structure of the film doesn’t really support such a long, meandering telling.
However, that’s just my frustration with the story as a whole. There’s so much to like individually in the film. Jack Lemmon gives the performance his all, as he always did, especially as Lord X. MacLaine is winning as Irma. Moustache in general is wonderful with his sprawling and underexplained backstory that makes him a lawyer, doctor, and several other things (but that’s another story). The set of Rue Casanova, where the bulk of the movie takes place, is huge and colorful, rather wonderfully captured by Wilder’s cinematographer Joseph LaSalle (who also lensed Wilder’s beautiful black and white masterpiece The Apartment).
It’s a movie that’s less than the sum of its parts, though. I found the whole experience frustrating in ways that I’d never seen from a Wilder film.
Netflix Rating: 3/5
Quality Rating: 2.5/4