If my apartment could talk

Scene from the film "If My Apartment Could Talk" by Billy Wilder


Billy Wilder's look at the boredom of corporate America

If my apartment could talk (1960) is one of Billy Wilder's best-known comedies, written alongside IAL Diamond, his collaborator on numerous hits. With quick twists, identity confusion and a Jack Lemmon at his peak, the film is often remembered for the laughs it made viewers laugh at, however, there is much more to be observed and discussed.

In the plot, an office worker (Lemmon) lends his apartment to his company's executives to take their lovers and girlfriends. With this, he hopes for his long-awaited promotion and being noticed by the board, being able to enjoy all the comforts of the American business dream. The problem is that he falls in love with his boss's (Fred MacMurray) lover (Shirley MacLaine), which could ruin everything.

The irony is already in the synopsis itself: in Billy Wilder's story, advancing in professional life in the 1960s is conditioned by the immoralities of casual encounters, seen as so sinful by one of the most conservative societies in the world. Men are all lonely, even if surrounded by power and material goods, who cannot stand being with the same women and therefore need lovers, double lives and successive lies.

Life in the American middle class is so boring that only a little secrecy can liven things up, sneaking out on night walks, lying through terrified secretaries and deceiving the family they love so much. A Christmas morning with your children is the most boring thing in the world, trapped by the relationships they themselves have built. As in all good satire, the contradictions, corruptions, conflicts and problems presented by the film can be extended into an analysis of the entire North American society of the early 1960s.[I]

In Sheldrake's own words, in his cynical speech to Fran: “I think I deserve this, but think about it. Why does a man have several wives? Because he is unhappy in his marriage. Because he feels alone. But it was before you. I’ve stopped that now.” Patriarchal capitalism only works at the expense of people like Fran and Baxter, inflating the egos of powerful men and ending any chance of shared happiness.

Between the two protagonists, if Lemmon brings the laughs, brightening every scene he is in, MacLaine gives us another type of comfort, representing the melancholy in everyone and indicating that human misery does not have time to end. “They are two psychologically wounded characters, conditioned by the certainty that they do not deserve love and that it is as exclusive as the key to the executive bathroom”.[ii]

It is in this game that the central point of the film is found: the boredom of the American middle class, conditioned by their corporate jargon and idealizing a better position in the company, a bigger room and an apartment with air conditioning. An alienation that goes beyond working hours. The opposition between comedy and drama keeps the plot moving forward, creating perfect situations to satirize a highly consumerist and individual mentality, guided by the ideas of loose e winner of a country in a constant state of war between everything and everyone.

Along with boredom, there is violence towards Fran's feelings and body, in the way she is treated by the men around her. It's about the union, in the same scene, of Fran's body, tortured by her choices, being thrown all over the apartment and the doctor's jokes and looks at Baxter, the “seductive scoundrel” who can't even open up. for the woman he loves. Shame resonates in this scene, with long takes and alternating cuts, as Fran's body is slapped by the doctor and she is forced to march to stay awake after a failed suicide attempt.[iii]

In a way, Billy Wilder was always a journalist, a chronicler of his own times, reporting on the insecurities and desires of those around him. Cinema was just a path, just like literature or painting. Billy Wilder's specialty, however, was in transmitting hypocrisies to the movie screen, leaving the public with no alternative but to laugh at themselves.

Comedies like: Sin lives next door (1955) Kiss me, idiot (1964) and One blonde for a million (1966) are some examples of how the filmmaker represented male neuroses, building idiotic and insecure characters, ridiculous in the eyes of any rational spectator. Even though he was a European immigrant, Billy Wilder interpreted America for Americans and helped take it from puritanism to a certain cosmopolitanism.[iv]

Fran and Baxter are far from ridiculous, but they are deceived by the system around them, accompanied by deeply sad auras, even if hidden between gags and funny accidents, from a life without any human touch. CC “Bud” Baxter is not as happy and complete as he thinks, going through a capitalist illusion that is most difficult to understand, after all, even free time has become bargaining power for capital and its bosses have invaded the space of so much small apartment, ending any chance of rest. The ailments of work begin to affect his body, after long cold nights outside, wandering without identity through a monotonous city.

Fran, in turn, is swallowed up by her lover's boredom and empty speeches, without expecting much from life, just contenting herself with the sexist jokes of the executives in the elevator and dreaming of the secretary position she didn't get, because she doesn't know how. spell appropriately. The system does not allow happiness for people like her, depending on their boredom to keep exploiting others.

In other words, there is no love in the daily lives of the two, who cannot even be described as human beings, at least until the moment they meet and the company elevator takes on new contours, as well as the apartment, now a kind of home. . Baxter changes as the narrative progresses, leaving professional aspirations aside and understanding that certain choices define us as members of a society, even though a large portion of people don't care about this.

Even with everything bad that happened to him; Fran's brother-in-law's punch or his neighbors' criticism, he doesn't become vengeful, nor does he look for ways to end the careers of Sheldrake, Dobisch and Kirkeby. On the contrary, Baxter just seeks his own happiness, rearranging his priorities and even giving up the coveted apartment. At the end of the film, organizing your belongings into boxes is almost a kind of exorcism, getting rid of the ailments and weight of that environment. Moving is the only alternative, as there is no change possible within the system.

In a way, we can say that the film finds itself between the codes and language of Old Hollywood and the breaking paradigms of New Hollywood, coming forward in criticizing the atomization of the individual by the economic system and working with multifaceted characters, whose pains and reliefs They reveal themselves to the viewer in parts, and then show us the totality of people lost in their own worlds.

Billy Wilder had already defied Hollywood censorship the previous year, with his delicious The hotter the better (1959), literally breaking barriers and subverting the idea of ​​comedy that American society was accustomed to. Even so, I believe that in If my apartment could talk the ideas are better executed, going from humor to drama in the blink of an eye (Billy Wilder's specialty), enabling the construction of rich characters, far from the clichés of other American classics.

Certain moments are very dark, such as conversations about suicide and the section about the broken mirror. Small pieces of a much larger mosaic, filled with elements and emotions to be analyzed. A real delight for those who watch, at the same time it will provoke certain thoughts and reflections about your own life.

Boredom may be the main point discussed here, whether in Baxter's life, the sadness of his boss's lover or the incompleteness of the men who fill his apartment, even so, satire is still the guiding thread of the plot, presenting a capitalism that it's about to explode, like a bottle of champagne on New Year's Eve.

Baxter's introductory monologue already introduces us to such themes, stating that his role and personality are just numbers, just like the lives of all the New Yorkers around him. “Wilder chooses to position his characters in oppressive settings, both in the workplace and at home…”.[v] Much more than attitudes, tastes or loves, what represents Baxter are his table number, the lined walls of his new room and his name on the door, painted with all the care in the world.

Black and white seems like the right choice for a story like this, caught between two tones, disillusioned by two men, oppressed by two environments and located between two creative atmospheres. Enjoyment and productivity are interspersed, to the point where Baxter and Fran can no longer find meaning. “I think I'm going to give up everything. After all, why do people need to love each other?” says Fran, in one of her many moments of self-discovery.

Fortunately, they meet and transform their lives. The system, on the other hand, remains oppressive. Billy Wilder is concerned with individual narratives, rescuing his characters from atomization by the metropolis. Funny until the end, when praised by the Soviets because of his film's criticism of the American dream, he stated that he could never film it in Russia, because people there don't have their own apartments. A provocateur at all times.

*Guilherme Colombara Rossatto is a master's student in history at the University of São Paulo (USP).


[i] DELEYTO, Celestino. The Dupes strike back: comedy, melodrama and point of view in “The Apartment”. Atlantis, Vol. 14, No. 1/2 (November 1992), p. 43.

[ii] TOBIAS, Scott. The Apartment at 60: is this Billy Wilder's finest film? The Guardian, London, June 15, 2020. Available at:https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/jun/15/the-apartment-billy-wilder-jack-lemmon>

[iii] HOFFMAN, Alison. Shame and the single girl: Reviving Fran and falling for Baxter in The Apartment. In: MCNALLY, Karen (org). Billy Wilder, Movie Maker: critical essays on the films. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2011, p. 82.

[iv] WALSH, David. A conversation with film historian and critic Joseph McBride, author of Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge – Wilder helped “lead America out of its puritanical isolation and xenophobia”. World Socialist Web Site, Michigan, December 20, 2021. Available at:https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/12/20/mcbr-d20.html>.

[v] SPECTOR, Bert. A crack the Cold War consensus: Billy Wilder's The Apartment. Management & Organizational History, vol 4 (2), 2009, p. 192.

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