OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
Culture Klutz:The French secret agent in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies stumbles across international boundaries.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
With his refined taste in beautiful women and sports cars, the frequently tuxedoed spy Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, who is known as OSS 117, might at first appear to be in the same league with the quintessential secret agent of the movies: Agent 007, James Bond. But upon closer inspection this French spy is in another league completely.
A clueless, helplessly inept agent, OSS 117 (played with goofy gusto by French comedian Jean Dujardin) belongs to a brotherhood of buffoons that includes Maxwell Smart of the American TV show Get Smart, French police detective Jacques Clouseau of the Pink Panther films and Mike Meyer’s sex-crazed British agent Austin Powers.
A French import and winner of the best film award at the Seattle International Film Festival, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (in French with English subtitles) is actually an update on a character created by French writer Jean Bruce in 1949, four years before Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, hit bookstores. Bruce’s creation appeared in a series of French spy flicks like 1966’s OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo.
Director Michel Hazanavicius’ update of the OSS 117 films looks and feels like a ’60s creation due to his version’s use of wardrobes, vintage sports cars, kitschy dramatic music and antiquated filming techniques– including using rear-projection effects whenever a scene finds OSS 117 riding around the countryside in a vehicle. But Hazanavicius’ movie is clearly a parody of these dated spy flicks.
While OSS 117 the character doesn’t have any cool Bond-like gadgets, OSS 117 the movie clearly has a secret weapon that distinguishes it from other spy film parodies: cleverly woven cultural insensitivity. Dispatched to Egypt to find another missing agent, OSS 117, who is touted as “a specialist in the Arabo Muslim world,” is severely insensitive to the culture he is working in and has an arrogance about the superiority of Western society.
In one of the film’s earliest scenes, OSS 117 laughs when his striking Egyptian assistant Larmina (Berenice Bejo) explains to the Frenchman that millions of people speak Arabic. He responds by saying condescendingly: “You’re sweet, but do you know how much a million is?” Later, OSS 117 reveals his ignorance about Egyptian culture by marveling at how the country built the Suez Canal 400 years ago. Larmina corrects the agent by stating that the waterway is just 86 years old– and is run by an English company.
While some of the film’s repeated gags are less effective, including a silly one about chickens and lights, it’s OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies’ poking fun at Western society’s lack of knowledge about Arabic culture that makes this ’60s-era character someone modern audiences can both relate to and laugh at.
OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES (2½) Directed by Michel Hazanavicius. • Starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo and Aure Atika. • Not rated, 99 min. • At the Osio Cinemas.