Comedy in any medium depends a great deal upon the mixing up of messages, the deliberate switching of a communication context, and the swapping of labels on statements. Billy Wilder's comedies generally avoid slapstick switches which pull the rug out from under characters. Nevertheless, his films subtly manage to swap around the foundations of their behavior. Sabrina is a good example. Audrey Hepburn played a variety of gamin girls gone elegant in the 1950's and early 1960's, and as Sabrina she once again made her way from simple innocent to beloved of the rich. What she learns in the process allows Wilder to make some sharp comments on how victimized an elusive waif, with a refined yet childlike sensuality, can be.
A large number of American movies, from war films to artists' biographies to Andy Hardy pictures, portray the education of their male hero. He is taught the proper values in life and weaned away from shallower ambitions by a good woman, who patiently and lovingly helps him see the error of his selfish hopes and assumptions. This narrative pattern is altered significantly when the sexes are reversed: if a man is to educate a woman in the proper set of values, a Pygmalion story is in order. In this sort of story, the woman, unlike her male counterpart, lacks the desire for money; her aspiration to a higher social order is a romantic one. As a rule, the relatiohship of teacher and pupil begins as a nonsexual one. The man adopts a somewhat fatherly role and only gradually drifts from benign paternalism to a more romantic interest in a woman who changes under his guidance. That teacher and pupil will eventually have some romantic involvement is understood by any viewer familiar with genre convention. The innocent girl about to learn something about life, however, is not meant to approach her education through a sexual relationship within this convention; thus, her first love interest can be counted on to be a mistake, and the man unsuitable. She can trust those with paternal, less sexual interest more than those with romantic designs.
Wilder bases much of the comedy in Sabrina on this distinction; in fact, he so strongly lampoons Sabrina's interest in the handsome romantic bachelor, as well as his wiser, less handsome alternative, that the whole implicit system of girlhood education proposed by convention acquires the look of the ridiculous. Wilder's subtle humor arises from some of the incongruities of the "poor girl makes good" story.
Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is a chauffeur's daughter whose father works for the wealthy Larrabee family on Long Island, New York. Sabrina is dissatisfied with life in the servants' quarters. She develops a crush on the younger Larrabee son, David (William Holden); but he thinks of her as a girl, not a woman. He has been married three times and is now an unattached playboy. One night Sabrina, unseen, watches him romance a woman on the family tennis court. Her own chances for David now seem so slim that Sabrina decides life is not worth living and tries to commit suicide by locking herself in the garage with the car motors running. Fortunately the older Larrabee brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who is definitely not a handsome playboy, saves her.
Sabrina is next sent to Paris by her father, who hopes that the cooking school she attends will cure her of her hopeless ambitions and romantic dreams and prepare her for servant work. Sabrina, however, cannot cook no matter how hard she tries, and she is miserable in cooking school. Then an elderly baron adopts her, and two years later, Sabrina returns to Long Island a glamorous, chic, and poised woman, thanks to the baron's tutelage. As Sabrina waits for her father to-pick her up from the station, David happens to drive by, and, not recognizing Sabrina as the chauffeur's daughter, he picks her up. Not until they both arrive at her destination and David realizes that he is home does Sabrina reveal her identity; and David determines to see more of the transformed woman.
At this point Sabrina enters another important phase in her education. On the verge of beginning a romance with a womanizer, she meets a second man, older and wiser than David—his brother Linus. In terms of convention, he represents the perfect match for Sabrina: he is wise and reliable as well as romantically interested, and Sabrina is gradually won over. Wilder, however, turns the genre conventions topsy-turvy by making the older man turn out to have dishonest intentions, and making the shallow playboy show him the error of his ways. Sabrina, trying to make sense of the men who court her, follows the path the audience expects any girl in her position to follow—and her world almost collapses around her as a result.
Sabrina is at first delighted to have made a big hit with David. She accepts his invitation to a party at the Larrabee,mansion, and when she arrives, she is the center of attraction and has all the men in the room interested; but David keeps his prize to himself. Linus, meanwhile, watches his brother's growing involvement with Sabrina with some trepidation. Linus, for business purposes, has already arranged for his easily amused brother to marry a sugar heiress. The marriage will improve the Larrabee fortune and make little difference to David, who can never keep his mind on anything for long anyway. In the best interest of the business, Linus decides to date Sabrina himself and wean her away from his brother. It is also, incidentally, in her own best interest, since she is still too naïve to see David for what he really is.
Linus thus wines and dines Sabrina, who soon realizes that David suffers by comparison. She begins to fall in love with the man who seems to have the better character; and, to his dismay, Linus also develops a keen interest in Sabrina. Linus, however, is determined to belong only to his business and plans to get rid of Sabrina. He tells her that he has booked passage for them aboard an ocean liner; when the ship sails, Linus is not on board, and Sabrina heads out to sea alone. When Linus shows up at the board meeting, David, who expected his brother to be honeymooning at sea, realizes what Linus has done. David gives his brother a lecture on the importance of love over business; Linus sees his error and takes a helicopter out to the ship to join Sabrina. David stays to watch over the family fortune, and so an uncertain role reversal is made complete.
With that ending Sabrina manages to include one more form of conventional film education, that of the singleminded businessman discovering the importance of his private life. In the combination of these various conventions, however, Sabrina manages to undercut them all. The viewer feels uneasy about any of the structures of romantic education proposed in the film. The happy ending does have a couple sailing for Paris, but the complications which got them there reveal a fragile set of assumptions.