Irma la Douce is the second movie I've seen with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine co-starring, after The Apartment. Lemmon plays an honest French policeman named Nestor assigned to the red light district, where MacLaine is the title character, the most well-known lady of the evening there. Nestor is smitten almost immediately, but when he finds out her profession, has her arrested along with about 15 other ladies. Unfortunately, at least one of those ladies was with Nestor's captain at the time, and Nestor unwittingly accepted bribes from the "boyfriends" (read: johns), so he got fired, and winds up moving to that neighborhood. He objects to how Irma's boyfriend treats her, and with considerable effort, beats him up, taking his place.
At which point difficulties arise. Nestor isn't entirely comfortable with Irma's profession, but she feels it's a far better one that working as a secretary or as a seamstress. Nestor also isn't comfortable with not providing any income, but Irma claims it would reflect badly on her with the other girls if her guy had a job. Confronted with this, Nestor takes a job at the fish market on the sly, but then builds an entirely separate identity as a British lord, and uses his wages to pay for time with Irma as a sly way to contribute. But in the meantime, Nestor is too exhausted to spend time with Irma, while this Lord X is a kind man she starts to fall for, which produces resentment in Nestor towards his other self and Irma, and leads to a whole big farcical mess.
Somehow I found this movie more depressing than The Apartment, which is nuts considering MacLaine's character tried to commit suicide in that film. Maybe because so much of that seemed to be about the perceptions of people outside (like how all Lemmon's neighbors think he's a ladies man, when really he's a would-be romantic schmuck trying to climb the corporate ladder). There is a fair amount of that here - Nestor's views on a man being a provider, and he's fairly buttoned-up about sex, Irma not wanting the other ladies to think she can't provide for him - but it's focused more on how those characters let those expectations and pressures warp how they treat each other. And it gets ugly. Irma feels neglected by Nestor, while Lord X is kind and caring, and then Nestor feels like she's about to throw him over for another guy (who Nestor created) and that she doesn't appreciate that he's tired from his job (which he's keeping secret from her).
I'm always impressed (and unnerved) seeing Lemmon play characters when they're mean. He's so often the pushover, either a klutz, or a babbling goof, the inept knight with the otherwise hangdog expression. But near the end, when things are going south in a hurry, he gets nasty, and it's hard to watch. I think because his characters are so often kind of a joke to others, and you know he knows it, and feels it keenly, that it's believable there's this fountain of bitterness and resentment boiling up in there, and then it just spills out.
MacLaine does well, though I don't think she gets as much to do. She's, not quite the straight man, but she definitely provides a calm set-up for most of Lemmon's humorous reactions. Irma pretty much knows who she is, and is comfortable with it. She doesn't want a more traditionally "respectable" job, she's happy with the one she has. Her feelings for Nestor or post boyfriends are separate from her work, and her work pays better and grants her more freedom and control over her life than working some 9-to-5 job in a cannery or whatever. She does hope Nestor is different from her past "boyfriends", and that hope seems dashed, but even that is something she's seen before. She accepts it, deals with the disappointment, and tries to move ahead.
I do have certain reservations about a character being completely cool with being a prostitute. Some of that is my own attitudes, and some of it is me thinking this reflects a guy's idealized vision of that practice. Maybe that's off-base, but it's very easy for me to picture some male writer saying, "Yeah, she actually really loves turning tricks! It'd be an embarrassment if her boyfriend did any work!" But maybe that's true, or was in Paris at that time. That isn't any fault of MacLaine's, like I said, she plays it well, Irma's self-confident when it comes to work, and if she's less so in more personal matters, there's still an air of experience, that she's seen all this before. It's just this constant question that was running in my mind watching the film. "How much of this is pure fantasy?"