Billy Wilder Elizabeth Sussex - Essay

Elizabeth Sussex

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Set mainly in a bawdy-house that is never in the least bawdy, Billy Wilder's Irma La Douce is the kind of fantasy much favoured by Hollywood—a sex comedy from which sex has been carefully eradicated. Enticed into the cinema by the promise of untold orgies, audiences are sent away reassured that even wildly successful prostitutes have no sex life to speak of, and that the habitués of the Rue Casanova are perhaps a little more colourful but scarcely less wholesome than themselves. Now that so many continental directors are presenting a different, and more accurate, picture of prostitution, one can hardly blame Wilder for trying to suspend disbelief, and even disappointment, by laying on the charm with a trowel. The trouble is that in doing so, he has thrown sophistication overboard in what should have been an ultra-sophisticated film.

Treated simply as a piece of inverted romanticism, the story of Irma …, queen of the tarts, being wooed and won by Nestor …, the most honest man who ever came her way, is certainly amusing, but not amusing enough to hold the screen successfully for 141 minutes…. Instead of the sort of explosively uninhibited satire of the whole upside-down Hollywood code that Wilder is surely sharp enough to have made, Irma La Douce is, in fact, a fairly routine frolic. On this level, it has much of the best that Hollywood can give….

Wilder's direction is distinguished not so much for what it does for the film as a whole, as for what it can pack into a single frame. Nestor's fight with Irma's former protector, Hippolyte the Ox, and a champagne-swilling party scene, in which Irma dances on a table top, are handled with splendid panache. This is, in fact, the right way to make a musical, and, on the stage, Irma La Douce was a musical. Under the circumstances it seems a pity that someone thought fit to change all that.

Elizabeth Sussex, "'Irma La Douce'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1964 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring, 1964, p. 98.