Thursday 11 September 2014

Classic Movie Night. Love, love, love - what is it good for?

If love is an asset, a good to be sold to the highest bidder, then what happens to romantic love? It’s a question that both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Irma La Douce ask, if in different ways. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is waiting for a rich man to marry her and take her away; she cannot afford to fall in love with the writer without means, or even if she does, that love will never lead to marriage, because that asset is reserved for someone who can fundamentally alter her living circumstances. In Irma La Douce, with is problematic on many levels but interesting in as far as it undermines the model of the one male breadwinner and the housewife that was still very much in place in the early 1960s, Irma is the worker and forbids her lover, Nestor, to earn money of his own; the disgraced police man enjoys the perks of his position as a very kept man (kept to the extent that Irma takes pride in affording him more expensive clothing and a lifestyle than the other working girls), but soon finds that he is incapable of dealing with his jealousy over how Irma does earn her money. 
As far as love stories go, it’s a question of definition in both cases. Holly is in love, but fundamentally unwilling to be trapped in a life with someone who cannot provide her with what she is dreaming of; as much as she is in love, she will not marry for love alone. Irma is in love, but is not willing to sacrifice her career (one that she is very articulate in defending for the emotional intimacy she provides to clients who have none), and sees her romantic relationship as quite different to her professional life, a distinction that Nestor is incapable of making. What the movie ends up doing with that premise is often painful to watch: Nestor deceives her, the emotional and physical abuse that Irma suffers both from her former pimp and Nestor as he grows more and more jealous is shockingly and irritatingly played for laughs. In the end, she does sacrifice her career for a husband and a child, which turns the film into an odd sort of morality tale with a happy ending that leaves a bitter after taste, especially since Nestor never has to admit his deceit and at one point hits her out of jealousy and frustration. 
And still, in a weird way, watching both these films, they seem subversive and surprisingly explicit in some ways. George Peppard’s writer who isn’t writing is essentially a kept man, exchanging sexual favours for a lifestyle that his writing, marred by writer’s block, wouldn’t afford him, and his early friendship with Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly is oddly modern, two people who are making ends meet in very unconventional ways connecting over the fact that they are different from everybody else. This more than the romantic element of the film made it worthwhile to watch – Peppard’s mixture of laconic arrogance, a man who always somehow seems essentially alone (until he falls in love and no longer wants to be), and Hepburn’s ability to portray a character who manages to hide behind layers and layers of other things, insists she is best off when she is not anchored by anything but realizing that life can’t be lived alone (the cat would exchange her forced freedom in the rain for a dry flat at any moment). 
If Irma La Douce actually were interested in its titular character rather than reducing her to a cliché viewed through Nestor’s eyes, who shines predominantly because the actress playing her is outstanding, the film could have the potential to still be relevant – can a relationship based on deception and lies ever work? In modern hands, Nestor’s jealousy, played here for the humour of a man so driven by it that he ends up taking several jobs, works himself to exhaustion, starts to invent a second persona (even though it is an interesting artistic endeavour to create a performance of an overblown caricature of an English lord in a film where every character already is an overblown caricature), would be seen as more tragic, something that ruins the truthfulness of his love for Irma because he would rather invent an absurd story than be straightforward about his feelings. 

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), directed by Blake Edwards, starring Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard. 

Irma La Douce (1963), directed by Billy Wilder, starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine.

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