Irma La Douce

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Our rating: four lava lamps.

Information about this film in the Internet Movie Database.

Irma La Douce
"You know, I suddenly have the strange urge
to wear a purple fur coat..."
One need only watch Irma La Douce next to its modern day counterpart, Pretty Woman, to see how the concept of romantic comedy has narrowed since 1963. These days, if a movie doesn't star someone like Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan, and doesn't follow the Nora Ephron code of screenwriting, then it probably won't be made. While this new breed of love story occasionally produces very good movies like Sleepless in Seattle or Forget Paris, it has effectively cut off other types of romance comedy. There are so many imitations of the Harry Met Sally formula (sweet pretty girl-next-door meets goofy but sensitive and funny guy, and complications arise) that there's very little room for movies like Irma to squeeze through.

Granted, Irma La Douce does feature a sweet and pretty girl -- Shirley MacLaine, who plays Irma ("the sweet," as the title implies). And it also has a goofy-yet-sensitive leading man, in the form of Jack Lemmon. But the other personality traits of these characters far outweigh their sweetness or sensitivity, and the complications here are far beyond those with which the likes of Billy Crystal or Jennifer Aniston ever had to contend.

Irma La Douce, like Pretty Woman, is a movie about a prostitute who falls in love with a "respectable" man. Likewise, the respectable man falls in love with her, despite her occupation. This is where the similarities between the two films stop. Where Pretty Woman stops, Irma La Douce is just getting started.

Irma La Douce
"This hair does not make me
look like Rita Moreno!"
Irma, as previously mentioned, is a hooker who works a particular street in the Paris red light district. We meet her in the opening scenes, humorously conning a few extra francs from her customers with various sob stories about the fictional life that led her to this occupation. Lemmon plays Nester Patou, a straight-arrow cop recently reassigned from playground duty to Irma's part of town. Although somewhat smitten with Irma, Nester quickly discovers the location of her brothel and raids the place. Unfortunately for him, one of the johns rousted out of the place is his supervisor.

Having upset the polite arrangement between the police and the mecs (that's French-talk for "pimps"), Nester is canned. Without a job, he's out on the street until he is taken in by (you guessed it) Irma. According to the rules of life in the red light district, the mecs are something like trophy husbands. They sit around in the cafe all day, drinking and playing pool. The girls, meanwhile, work to support their mecs in style. It's Irma's dream to make Nester king of the mecs. (Just think of it as "family values.")

Nester, meanwhile, can't stand the thought of Irma in and out of bed with other men all day, but grudgingly accepts the role of mec to make her happy. Then, one day, he comes up with a scheme to keep Irma to himself while maintaining the illusion that she's supporting him.

This is where the differences between the two types of romantic comedy become apparent. The film maintains an emphasis on comedy without losing the romantic interest between the two characters. There are no extended city shots set to soft music, no lonesome mooning scenes by the principal actors, and best of all, no footage of older, better movies. (We wonder what filmmakers are thinking when they show scenes from great romantic films inside their own movies. In the majority of cases, it only reminds the audience that this current film suffers by comparison.)

Irma La Douce
"Hey, I get the feeling that in a past life,
I was British!"
In our typical Sleepless in Seattle-type film, one of the couple (or more likely, both) would come around to the other person's way of thinking. Instead, both parties entrench themselves more deeply in their own attempts to make this love perfect. Nester hatches his plan to make both himself and Irma happy. Disguising himself as the British "Lord X," Nester visits Irma once a week, paying her enough money to support herself and Nester without taking any other jobs. Irma, playing by the rules of comedy, doesn't recognize Nester. (Actually, it's not all that odd. The disguise is quite convincing.) She also doesn't think it odd that Lord X would rather play cards than have sex. He is British, after all. Overjoyed, Irma takes Lord X on as her singular customer.

When he's not impersonating a Brit, Nester gets up at the crack of dawn to work at the market. Lord X's habits have to be supported somehow, after all, and the payment Nester receives for backbreaking manual labor does the trick. The problem, though, is that by the time he's done working and playing cards as Lord X, he's too exhausted to pay attention to Irma as himself. This guy just can't win.

We can't help but reflect on the fact that Jack Lemmon is an amazing actor, consistently charming and funny. This is a man we can't help but like in just about anything, and he keeps popping up with deep, complex performances -- in comedies, no less. In Irma La Douce, Lemmon's Nester is just as crazy as Irma, willing to do anything to keep her, because he can't see that his attempts to keep her will ultimately drive her away.

Shirley MacLaine, for all her past-life goofiness in recent years, is Lemmon's equal. It's too bad that she was only teamed with him in this film and The Apartment; they had a chemistry achieved only by a few other screen pairs. Irma is a perfect role for MacLaine: saucy, wisecracking, and with a morality of her own. Another intriguing facet of this film is its presentation of MacLaine as sex symbol -- with the various outfits and less-than-outfits she wears, she's at her most seductive.

By the time Irma La Douce wraps up, it reaches the level of madcap comedy, which is something Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to do. (And no, Tommy Boy doesn't count.) But what makes the movie special is the bizarre love that Irma and Nester have for each other, an affection that makes us believe that even if love can't conquer all, it can at least be funny.

Rent or Buy from Reel.

Review date: 6/24/98

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