Irma la Douce has a delightfully farcical premise, a plotline that one would expect could only yield gold in the hands of a proven comic genius like Billy Wilder, whose One, Two, Three and The Apartment are among the greatest bittersweet gems of classic Hollywood comedy. Irma (Shirley MacLaine) is a Parisian prostitute who falls in with the naïve cop Nestor (Jack Lemmon) after he's kicked off the force. She takes him on as her "business manager," the film's coy term to avoid offending censors with the word "pimp," and the duo begins to fall in love. Unfortunately, Nestor is not cut out for the life of a pimp, and his jealousy leads him to create an alter-ego, a wealthy English lord who will be Irma's only customer, thereby keeping her off the streets and all to himself. This convoluted premise seems fraught with possibilities for delirious, absurdist comedy, Wilder's specialty, and yet the film itself is curiously flat, like a fine champagne with its bubbles dissipated, its potential to tickle and delight only showing through in periodic bursts.
It's hard to tell quite what went wrong, but the film is ill-conceived practically from the start, sabotaging itself at every turn. Even the language doesn't do it any favors, since having all the supposedly French characters speak perfect unaccented English is incredibly distracting. This is of course a common enough conceit for Hollywood films, but in a film where some characters are meant to be speaking French and others in English, the complete lack of foreign tongues or even accents drives home just how inauthentic and contrived the film is in every aspect. Lemmon's hilarious impression of Lord X a pastiche of British malapropisms, with a rat-like mustache, bucked teeth, and an eyepatch with a proclivity for switching eyes between appearances is one of the film's highlights, but its impact is dulled by the fact that everyone else in the film is speaking English too. The plot device's use of a false accent and language calls attention to the fact that Nestor is supposed to be a Frenchman impersonating an Englishman, even though he speaks like an American whenever he's not playing Lord X.
These contrivances extend to every aspect of the film, from its curiously closed-off scenery to its borderline-misogynist script to its entirely inconsistent characterization. The film opens with some gorgeous views of unpopulated Paris locations, capturing the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe at the hazy-blue early morning hours when the streets of Paris are empty except for the street-sweepers. There's a foggy, poetic quality to these shots, giving the film a real sense of place that is rarely returned to as the rest of the action occurs almost entirely on tightly constrained artificial sets. There are scenes at a market and a slaughterhouse that make some effort to capture the lives of working people, to give a sense of the drudgery and toil of "honest work," but these attempts are sabotaged by the blatantly plastic, forensically clean slabs of beef and perfectly molded cabbages being hauled around these carefully designed areas. There are many Hollywood films that have embraced this artificiality, crafted luminous entertainments from such lurid and obviously faked decoration, but Wilder falters by trying to mimic mundane reality from such ridiculous artifice.
Similarly, his script fails him by trying to have it both ways with regard to prostitution, touching on the exploitation of the women involved and yet never going far enough in questioning the assumptions behind the profession. Irma and the other girls experience a lot of violence and intimidation at the hands of their pimps, and Wilder doesn't flinch away, making Irma's first pimp Hippolyte (Bruce Yarnell) an oafish, nasty jerk who beats and threatens her constantly. This touch of reality only drives home how misogynist the script's treatment of Irma can be elsewhere. Although she's often portrayed as a tough, self-sufficient girl who views her prostitution as just a way to make money and take care of herself, she's sometimes characterized in more demeaning ways. In one nauseating scene, she weeps when Nestor says he's going to go out and get a job, tearfully protesting that she wants to take care of him and keep him in fine clothes and fancy jewelry. This is a strange inversion of reality, with the prostitute happily selling herself to provide for her pimp, rather than simply to survive. It makes Irma abject and pathetic, necessitating Nestor's attempts to rescue her; in the end, he rehabilitates her into a housewife and a mother, making her give up prostitution much as he gets her off cigarettes, as though paid sex was just another of the addictions she ought to give up. Wilder gave MacLaine dignity, depth, and complexity playing a similarly downtrodden girl in The Apartment. Here, she's given little to work with and few opportunities to get beyond the surface level of her character.
Even so, the film is not without its small joys and victories, one of which is Lemmon's portrayal of Lord X. Simply by donning a mustache, beard, and eyepatch and affecting an exaggeratedly pompous accent, Lemmon completely transforms himself, making it almost believable that his own lover wouldn't even recognize him. He's a kind of pop-culture British pastiche, spouting British place names and institutions with a randomness that borders on the unhinged. In the throes of conversation, he's likely to become excited and start just rambling off disconnected words RAF, BBC, Yorkshire, Worcestershire, Dunkirk or trailing off into an incomprehensible mumble. It's a brilliant comedic performance, and the film comes alive whenever Lord X and Irma get some screentime together, which isn't nearly often enough. Indeed, the film takes an unbearably dull hour to even get to the point where Lord X is first introduced, and once he does appear he's used very sparingly. The film's pacing and structure is haphazard, front-loaded with an hour of puffed-up background material before the film's "real" story even begins. The unlikely love triangle between Nestor, Lord X, and Irma is ripe material, giving Lemmon some room to stretch out and show off his comedic chops, maintaining a precarious balancing act to keep his mad scheme functioning somehow. Wilder doesn't seem to realize that this is the meat of his film, and that it's surrounded by fluff that only dilutes the best material he managed to get out of this mess.
Lemmon is great in stretches of the latter half of the film, racing around at his manic, mugging best, but there's not much he can do to improve Wilder's turgid staging of some of the slapstick scenes. Most of the film's attempts at physical comedy are strangely inert, lacking the propulsive brilliance that Wilder brought to James Cagney in One, Two, Three. It's true that Lemmon doesn't have Cagney's visceral energy, but he's obviously a fine comic actor in his own right, and Wilder simply leaves him adrift for long portions of the film, with no funny material or with such dead staging that the humor fizzles. In one early scene, Nestor gets in a fight with the pimp Hippolyte, a big thug who Nestor eventually manages to beat with sheer perseverance and ingenuity. It's a scene that should be irresistibly fast-paced, with the slapstick violence furiously accumulating towards the final takedown. Instead, it's unevenly staged, progressing in fits and starts, with curious lulls of dead time right in the middle of the action. It's hard to believe that this lumpen inaction was directed by the same man who filmed One, Two, Three with such intensity, such an acute sense of pacing and an eye for gut-busting details. In this film, Wilder's gift for comedy seems to come and go sporadically. There are scenes that work beautifully like a cartoony set piece where Nestor, on the run from the law, hides from them by dressing as a cop and participating in the search for himself but too many others that drag on, unfunny and forced, for what feels like hours. There are redeeming moments and scenes here and there, but too few, stretched out across a bloated two and a half hours, making Irma la Douce a surprising failure from a talented director mishandling a talented cast.