By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2008)
“I was woken by a guy screaming on a tower. I couldn’t sleep. I had to shut him up.”
(Shocked tone) “A muezzin? You ‘shut up’ a muezzin?! He was calling for prayer!!”
(Bemusedly) “Yours is a strange religion. You’ll grow tired of it…it won’t last long.”
No, that transcript is not excerpted from secret Oval Office tapes; it’s an exchange between the cheerfully sexist, jingoistic, folkway-challenged and generally clueless French secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (alias OSS 117) and his Egyptian liaison, the lovely Larmina El Akmar Betouche. The scene is from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a gallingly amusing Gallic spy romp from director Michel Hazanavicius.
The director and his screenwriter Jean-Francois Halin adapted the script based on characters from the original “OSS 117” novels by Jean Bruce, which concerned the misadventures of an Ian Fleming-esque French government agent. The books inspired a series of films, produced in France between 1956 and 1970. This latest installment played the festival circuit two years ago (I wasn’t able to get into the sold-out screening at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival, much to my chagrin) but is only just now receiving American distribution in May of 2008 via limited engagements in select cities.
After a brief b&w prologue depicting agent OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin) handily dispatching a Nazi adversary from a plane (sans parachute) in a wartime escapade, the film flash-forwards to the year 1955. Hubert (as we will refer to him going forward) is sent to Cairo to investigate the mysterious death of a fellow agent. He is assisted by the aforementioned Larmina (Bernice Bejo) and just like an undercover 007, he is given a business front. In this case, our intrepid agent poses as a chicken exporter; and yes, all of the inherent comic possibilities involving this most ubiquitous species of barnyard fowl are gleefully explored (and the credits assure us that none were harmed during filming).
As the intrigue thickens, Hubert encounters some sexy royalty in the person of La princesse Al Taouk (Aure Atika) as well as the usual Whitman’s assortment of shady informers, sneaky assassins and dirty double dealers that populate exotic spy capers. In the interim, thanks to his deGaullist stance and blissful cultural ignorance of the Muslim world, Hubert manages to deeply offend nearly every local he comes in contact with. As one Egyptian associate muses to himself: “He is very stupid…or very smart.”
Hazanavicius has concocted a tremendously well-crafted and entertaining spy spoof here that actually gets funnier upon repeat viewings. Unlike the Austin Powers films, which utilizes the spy spoof motif primarily as an excuse for Mike Meyers to string together an assortment of glorified SNL sketches and (over) indulge in certain scatological obsessions, this film remains true and even respectful to the genre and era that it aspires to parody.
The acting tics, production design, costuming, music, use of rear-screen projection, even the choreography of the action scenes are so pitch-perfect that if you were to screen the film side by side with one of the early Bond entries (e.g. From Russia With Love) you would swear the films were produced the very same year.
I also have to credit the director’s secret weapon, which is leading man DuJardin. He has a marvelous way of underplaying his comedic chops that borders on genius. He portrays his well-tailored agent with the same blend of arrogance and elegance that defined Sean Connery’s 007, but tempers it with an undercurrent of obliviously graceless social bumbling (recalling Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.
One of the running gags has Hubert uttering “deep thought” epiphanies that belabor the obvious. While getting a massage, he announces: “I love being rubbed with oil.” At breakfast, he realizes: “I love buttering my toast.” Stopping to gaze at a public fountain, he wistfully offers: “I love the white noise water makes.” DuJardin delivers these lines with the knowing wisdom of a high lama, imparting a Zen proverb. I tell you, the man is a bloody genius.