OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
What a hoot. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies may be the funniest spy spoof I've ever seen. I hedge only because seeing it in a large, crowded theater filled with a large, appreciative audience adds to one's own enjoyment, and on Thursday night at the Orpheum the Wisconsin Film Festival audience laughed with involuntary abandon.
I laughed right along with them, delighted at the sophistication of a French script that referenced countless conventions and subtexts from the classic James Bond movies of the 1960s, starring Sean Connery.
Starring as OSS 117 (alias Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath), Jean Dujardin bears a striking resemblance to Connery in face (but for Dujardin's somewhat Gallic nose) and mannerisms. He nails Connery's arched eyebrow, the smirk that often played at the corners of Connery's mouth in the Bond films, the self-assured swagger, the sparkling white teeth.
Yet this is not a Bond spoof. OSS 117, alias Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, was created by the writer Jean Bruce. His first OSS 117 novel was published in 1949 -- four years before Ian Fleming published Casino Royale, the first of his 14 Bond novels and short-story collections. Bruce was, by comparison, prolific, churning out 91 novels about OSS 117. Following Bruce's death in a Jaguar crash circa 1963, his widow went on to write another 143 novels involving OSS 117 -- and, after her death, two of her children added two dozen more titles. A handful of respectful film adaptations were produced between 1956 and 1970.
Nevertheless, viewers of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, will see obvious references to Connery-era Bond films: the fetching exotic babes (here Larmina El Akmar Betouche, played by Berenice Bejo, and Aure Atika in the role of Princess Al Tarouk), the nefarious foes, the spy's insensitivity to other cultures, and the vintage homo-erotic undertones -- the latter exaggerated here to great effect.
Adapted for the screen by Jean-Francois Halin and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies often flirts with the silly and sometimes goes over the top, but is most successful when it downplays the exaggeration and opts instead for clever subtlety and glib understatement. Recognizing that the spy genre has long since become a caricature of itself, the filmmakers have only to shift the standard conventions of secret-agent movies two or three degrees off from plumb to be effective at provoking laughter. Full credit to the subtitlists for preserving these nuances in translation.
Credit also to the production designers who recreate the visual standards of 1960s spy flicks to great effect, earning a Cesar Award (the French equivalent to the Oscar). Cesar nominations for best actor (Dujardin), cinematography, costume design and script adaptation also suggest the sophistication on display in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Then again, the French revere Jerry Lewis, so there's no accounting for their taste. But the film has also won the Seattle International Film Festival's Golden Space Needle Award for best film, and won the Grand Prix at the Tokyo International Film Festival, so there's that.
I give the movie four thumbs up on a five-thumb scale. I haven't laughed this much since Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, but unlike that guilty pleasure I came away from OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies feeling no guilt whatsoever -- only pleasure.