Written by Billy Wilder, Ernest Lehman, and Samuel A. Taylor
Directed by Billy Wilder
Sabrina is not my favorite Billy Wilder film. I’ve never been a big fan of the romantic comedy, but compared to modern fare in that genre, Sabrina is a masterpiece. This feels like the ur-text of romantic comedies, all of the serendipitous tropes and plot contrivances to work towards a happy ending. The plot couldn’t be more simple, but that is to the film’s favor, keeping the cast pared down so that time is spent developing core relationships. There are side characters that exist to provide comedic relief. It’s all very fluffy & light, a great tasting meal of cotton candy.
Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is the daughter of the Larrabee family’s chauffeur. She’s grown up living above the family’s garage and developed a crush on the youngest son, David (William Holden). David is a womanizing playboy who breaks hearts where ever he goes and can’t see Sabrina as anything but a child. Eventually, the young woman leaves to study the culinary arts in Paris for two years.
When Sabrina returns, David is engaged to the heiress of a plastic company. His older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) is attempting to make sure that marriage happens for the sake of the company. David becomes enamored with the older, more sophisticated Sabrina but gets injured, and Linus steps in to run interference. However, Linus finds himself falling for Sabrina.
What might play as a generic comedy is elevated by the trio of lead actors. Each of the performers is dripping with charisma and charm, which makes us immediately like them. The stakes aren’t incredibly high, and with over a half a century of romantic comedies since this one, the audience can see exactly where the story is going. But this isn’t one of Wilder’s taught noir films, with twists and turns. This is a very digestible, easy to watch film. Watching this movie creates a sense of warmth as we watch the light comedy play out.
I think Wilder is a smarter filmmaker than most studio hacks working in romantic comedies and so he manages to deliver a standard story with more flair and charm than they can. He avoids the pitfalls of lame jokes and focuses the humor around the personalities of his characters. We never have elaborate set pieces centered around a single gag leading to a punchline. That makes this infinitely more watchable than so many movies that try to play things light. Modern rom coms typically try to create multiple subplots or extensive running jokes that serve no purpose to add to the core plot.
I appreciate that Linus’s age was an essential part of the plot. I was worried that the attitude of the times wouldn’t acknowledge the age gap between him and Sabrina. I wouldn’t say she is the “manic pixie dream girl” concerning his rut in life, but she definitely dips her toe in that territory. I would argue that Wilder gives Sabrina more depth than other female characters in the genre. She is going to live her life and be fine whether Linus is there or not, his choice to follow her is entirely his own and not something she needs.
Sabrina is a fun film, but definitely not my exact cup of tea. There’s a marked difference as we reach the mid-1950s in Wilder’s work. He appears to be moving away from the darker, heavier material and into exploring smartly written comedic work. It’s still quite good when put up against modern cinema, and I’m still enjoying this work on a different level.