The Bond plays on
Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, the secret agent code-named OSS 117, could be called the French answer to James Bond, except that OSS 117 was there first. The prolific French novelist Jean Bruce introduced the debonair American spy of French descent in 1949, three years before Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel. By the time of his death in 1963, Bruce penned 91 OSS 117 adventures. His widow published another 143 titles until her own death, at which point their children cranked yet out another 24 through 1992. In addition, there were plays, comic books and a number of French films starting in 1956.
Anything with such a long run must be ripe for parody, and director Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which opens the Sacramento French Film Festival, is about as ripe as a parody can get. The movie is slick and funny, a pitch-perfect spoof of the James Bond movies (particularly From Russia with Love) from the early 1960s, when they were at their freshest and most exotic.
Jean Dujardin (perfectly deploying the cocky smile and jaunty eyebrows of the young Sean Connery) plays OSS 117. We first meet him in a black-and-white prologue set in the last days of World War II (before spoofing Bond, Hazanavicius and writer Jean-François Halin take a nice fling at spoofing Casablanca), where Agent 117 has a jolly time stealing V-2 rocket plans with fellow agent Jack Jefferson (Philippe Lefebvre)—and an even jollier time laughing about it as they fly off into the sunset, smiling coyly at one another.
After the retro ’60s-style credits, OSS 117 is in Paris (and in color), where he learns of the death of Agent Jefferson while on assignment in Egypt. From there, 117 is off to Cairo to investigate, posing as an international chicken merchant. (He arrives at the Cairo airport surrounded by a primly laughing coterie of stewardesses; we suspect that he’s joined the mile-high club with each one of them … or perhaps all at once.) From there, he becomes embroiled with various mysterious characters, including a German (Richard Sammel), an Egyptian minister (Saïd Amadis), an insurgent imam (Youssef Hamid), a niece of the deposed King Farouk (Aure Atika) and Jefferson’s comely Egyptian secretary (Bérénice Bejo). Through it all, he swaggers suavely from bed to bed (“Make it quick, I only have a few hours”), blithely stepping on local toes (“The trouble with Arabic is it’s hard to read … Come on, it’s 1955; wake up!”) and beating up a muezzin whose call to prayer disturbs his sleep.
The very look of the movie is a nostalgia trip for those who saw Dr. No, Goldfinger or Our Man Flint in the theater. Hazanavicius and his creative crew reportedly duplicated the film stock, lenses, filters and lighting common at the time; combined with the hairstyles, the clothes and the brassy music (by Ludovic Bource and Kamel Ech-Cheik), there’s a 1960s texture that we can feel on an almost subliminal level. (The movie is set in 1955, but it looks like it was made in 1964, which is absolutely correct.)
The mere look, sound and feel of the movie wouldn’t work if the material wasn’t funny, and it is. Halin’s script has sublime absurdities—being a chicken merchant is the kind of cover that might sound good on paper, until you actually have to deal with chickens while carrying on an investigation or being chased by an assassin through your factory. By the same token, the funniest material wouldn’t work if your leading man weren’t in on the joke, and Jean Dujardin (who wasn’t even born until 1972, when the Bond movies were already past their prime) gets it in spades.
The recent Get Smart movie spoofs Mission: Impossible III and The Bourne Ultimatum as much as it does James Bond, updating the jokes so the new kids in the theater will follow the humor. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies goes back to the source, when the sight of a handsome spy in Cairo (the movie was actually filmed in Casablanca) was a novelty all by itself. It spoofs the genre in 1960s terms—and then it tells its jokes in French. It takes a chance on its audience, and the gamble pays off.