I have a confession to make — as much as I love him I can sometimes (and I stress SOMETIMES) find Jack Lemmon’s acting a tad insufferable, often coming across as a rapid-fire series of highly orchestrated ticks, quirks, moans, grimaces and super annoying flourishes as opposed to a real performance. This is no more evident than during the start of Billy Wilder’s ‘Irma la Douce’ (1963) where Lemmon plays Nestor Patou, a naive Parisian policeman who falls in love with a prostitute, loses his job and inadvertently becomes her pimp. It’s an initially somewhat grating performance that had me sitting there wondering what the hell Lemmon and Wilder were thinking. But here’s the trick — Lemmon can act, but Nestor can’t… and that’s the entire point here.
The first half of ‘Irma la Douce’ plays out pretty much as expected as Nestor bumbles his way into Irma’s (Shirley McLaine) life and also her heart. She could do with a guy who doesn’t treat her badly and Nestor needs a reason to grow up (he’d previously been the policeman for a children’s play park before being moved to this red light district). The only problem is Irma takes pride in her profession and hopes Nestor isn’t going to try and reform her like other men have done. It would never entre his head, Nestor lies even as the thought of Irma sleeping with other men is driving him crazy. There has to be a solution, but it just so happens that Nestor’s solution is as crazy as his rapidly deteriorating mental state.
Nestor’s genius scheme to keep Irma off the street is to invent a wealthy client, the rich and mysterious Englishman Lord X, who will see Irma once a week for innocent and platonic activities in return for quite a bit of money. She can now still earn a living whilst remaining faithful to Nestor. It’s the perfect plan or, at least, it would be if it wasn’t economically inviable, ethically dubious and, ultimately, physically exhausting for poor Nestor.
Going into ‘Irma la Douce’ I was expecting to become besotted, and possibly heart-broken, by McLaine’s Irma the way her Fran Kubelik emotionally destroys me in ‘The Apartment’ (1960). And Irma does tug away at your heart-strings with her scruffy dog, gorgeous smile and green tights, yet it wasn’t her who captured my heart here. No. Instead it was Lord X!
Lemmon’s performance as Nestor, a man who struggles to barely act as himself and is almost constituted of nothing but a host of mannerisms in lieu of a genuine personality, is fantastic but this skill only really becomes apparent (or “pays off” might be more accurate) when Nestor has to play Lord X or, more specifically, when Lemmon has to play a Frenchman man who can’t act acting as a refined Englishman. This means we’re constantly on edge as at any moment the entire facade could come smashing and crashing down around Nestor as he vastly overcompensates every single move, gesture and word to breaking point. So we’re watching an actor playing someone acting but only what the person they’re acting as THINKS acting is. It’s really something to behold, and very funny.
Obviously it all becomes ridiculously convoluted and insane to the point where Nestor becomes desperately jealous of himself, even if that is also the only logical, and hilarious, conclusion to his scheme. It is watching Nestor spinning all these plates that’s the real thrill here meaning ‘Irma la Douce’ has more in common with Wilder and Diamond’s previous ‘One, Two, Three’ (1961) in that is very much a comedic machine, a contraption for generating laughs and powered primarily by a furiously demanding role by the male lead (this could be why, for me, Irma seems to recede somewhat as the movie goes on). It’s funny as hell even if, or maybe because, we can sense all the intricate pieces moving.
This careful planning fully reveals itself towards the end when Nestor is forced to impersonate a policeman, something we know he can do effortlessly because we witnessed him making such a meal of being one — all those overplayed ticks and quirks — at the start. Yet this time they must be UNDERPLAYED to succeed. It illustrates that it wasn’t just Lemmon who knew exactly what he was doing all along but also Wilder and Diamond with their writing as all the pieces fully fit into place.
‘Irma la Douce’ doesn’t quite have the emotional impact or resonance of some of Wilder’s other movies but it demonstrates his attention to detail, joke construction and plotting that his best films contain. Add onto all that a beautiful and intricate Parisian set, a humourous score by André Previn, along with both Lemmon and McLaine at the top of their game, and it’s easy to see why Irma la Douce so effortlessly catches the attention. And it’s not just because of those green tights and that heart-breaking smile.