Saturday, June 14, 2008

OSS 117: Cairo--Nest of Spies (2008)

Opening like an action-adventure, Nouvelle Bond picture, OSS 117: Cairo--Nest of Spies commences in 1945 as a villainous Nazi tries to escape to South America as the Third Reich is in the unceremonious process of disintegrating. Aboard a small plane, the Nazi is eventually liquidated by our ridiculous but well-intentioned hero, OSS 117, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, who quite frankly looks the part of Sean Connery's incarnation of Ian Fleming's English hero, 007, James Bond but intellectually echoes Peter Sellers' incorrigibly clueless Inspector Clouseau. OSS 117: Cairo--Nest of Spies is the second film I know of in this decade to open with animated credits ala Saul Bass (the first being Catch Me If You Can). Once this teaser involving the doomed Nazi (shot in black and white) and flashy, colorful animated opening credits bit concludes, the film jumps ten years to 1955. OSS agent Jack Jefferson has evidently been killed in Cairo just as all international hell is breaking loose (the English want the Suez Canal, a Soviet ship last seen in the region has disappeared, a radical sect of militants are on the precipice of igniting all kinds of mayhem, and the French are reeling from their losses in Indochina while trying to keep myriad lids on tight elsewhere) and the obliviously bumbling OSS 117--who considers Jefferson a great friend (the reveries of past playing games on a beach are hilarious)--is assigned the task of figuring out just what happened.

Jean Dujardin, a French comic, is impossibly brilliant as the eponymous French secret agent. His timing is both impeccable and repeatedly, surprisingly, offbeat. His demeanor is perfect. Like Sellers at his most playfully precocious, he plays his character with just a pinch of knowing self-awareness; there's plenty of room to breathe and reflect on the characterization while never even beginning to give the game away. From the pitch-perfect send-ups of numerous spy tropes ("How's the veal stew?" simply means, "How's the veal stew?" and nothing more) to the quirky, perfectly related subtle touches that round out the main character (combing his hair in bed while being served breakfast by a beautiful temporary colleague; being genuinely annoyed by the dust that finds itself on said temporary colleague's car; pausing in the middle of a hand-to-hand fight in a hotel room to tell a gorgeous, treacherous onlooker, "I love to fight," while grinning almost from ear to ear), Dujardin's probable modifications and decisions all work out swimmingly for the character.

Having no earthly knowledge of the actual pre-2000s existence of an OSS 117, looking into the whole thing has been truly revelatory. Apparently being American means you only know of one agent whose code name is numerically composed (the aforementioned 007). America and England, united and divided by a single language all at once. Anyway, OSS 117's roots go back to 1949, the year the famous Gallic spy began appearing in novels (apparently 143 in all by a few separate counts). He then appeared (in a presumably more straight-laced fashion) in a few French films of the '50s and '60s. What a startling discovery as it casts the new film in an entirely different and even more interesting light. For one thing, if the first novel in the OSS 117 canon, penned by Jean Bruce, was written in 1949, it means he's actually a little older than his English counterpart, who first appeared in Fleming's 1953 "Casino Royale."

Ultimately, OSS 117: Cairo--Nest of Spies is to me what the Austin Powers movies would have been if they had been either funny, or smart, or, heaven forbid, both. The protagonist is utilized by director Michel Hazanivicius and screenwriter Jean-Francois Halin to probe the time (mid-'50s) in all of its various ways while taking the novels, written by. As Halin notes, "The novels contain everything that France was in the in the '50s--the Fourth Republic, the end of the colonial empire, a rather macho, rather misogynistic relationship with women, but also a kind of condescension towards colonized people." Halin wraps all of these elements into his superb screenplay, as though juggling some of the weightier issues of the past century amidst the three-ring circus that is so much of the film's more frontally positioned pleasures.

Unlike the Mike Meyers vehicle franchise, which relied on far too much juvenile brashness to make much of a coherent point beyond the pathetic status of that series' outdated hero (and even this aspect was later abandoned in favor of more insipid gags after the first installment), OSS 117: Cairo--Nest of Spies ably and surreptitiously weaves together important sociopolitical points that are not disparate at all, but rather cumulatively more vital to take in than perhaps ever for Americans. Like the somewhat charming but inept, strong-willed but thick-headed and well-intentioned but completely over-his-head French super-spy, we risk alienating the world through our insensitive globe-trotting and disregard while nominally attempting to preserve global order.

When taken aback by his lovely Egyptian colleague (the Argentinean Berenice Bejo) refusing to drink alcohol because her religion forbids it, the tactless and haughty Frenchman unthinkingly blurts out, "What kind of stupid religion would forbid alcohol?" When awakened by a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, he angrily attacks him, thinking he's merely some sort of self-centered loudmouth spewing nonsense into the microphone for the whole city to hear. His lack of interest in the pyramids coupled with his foolish remark that Egyptians should feel national pride because of the Suez Canal (which he also mistakenly believes was created 4,000 years earlier), created by the British in their own interests, cast his understanding of the colonized Arab-Islamic world that his superiors bizarrely believe he possesses in a funny-because-it's-probably-true light.

Yet one can allow the more deeply cerebral and thoughtful subtext slide right on by if one wishes to (though how one could unless one were a child is beyond me; it's an outrageous comedy, so nuance is not its most treasured asset, though the screenplay certainly has it in abundance in any case). The film is just perfectly hilarious with a central comedic performance that somehow feels both more singular and more belonging to a rich lineage of past, assorted incarnations than any other I can think of in a very long time.

OSS: 117--Cairo, Nest of Spies is a wonderment, then. Like Borat (but overall superior, I do believe) one senses that a comedic classic has possibly been rendered. A revisiting will be most welcome. It is a DVD I will have to own. I would like to take another look at the Peter Lorre impersonator, and the Nazis in the pyramid, and the chicken-chucking fight, and the hilarious scene of "intelligent" conversation ("Women change their hair when they change men," OSS 117 relates), and the Cairo competitor giving OSS 117 an ultimatum (Hubert actually diverts himself from his main mission to concern himself with his cover and a nefarious fellow wanting to rub him out--oh, it's hilarious!), and the hysterically-used '50s-style rear-screen projection, and the spa torture scene and the reveal of the... Oh, I've said too much.

6 comments:

Craig Kennedy said...

Since I don't have that many original ideas, allow me to repeat myself.

I love that Dujardin essentially plays it straight. Just like Leslie Nielson in Airplane, he doesn't act like he's in on the joke and it's all the funnier. Contrast that with the Naked Gun movies with the pratfalls and the mugging - not nearly as funny.

Of course, OSS 117 isn't the same kind of comedy as Airplane, but it's better than Austin Powers which is more like Naked Gun - all self-awareness and camp.

I also like the decision to let it remain a period piece, again unlike Austin Powers. Taking an old fashioned character and putting him in the modern world becomes one joke and Powers just kept hammering away at it (mind you, I half like the first AP), but OSS 117 is even ridiculous in his own time.

Alexander Coleman said...

Completely agree about keeping OSS 117 in his own time. In this case, OSS 117: Cairo--Nest of Spies, commendably uses a past era, the '50s, to comment on to partly comment on what led to the geopolitical problems of our time while also serving as a sly critique of eerily similar attitudes today in attempting to deal with such problems.

Like you say, Dujardin knows that mugging would be a disastrous route, as does the director.

Austin Powers was such a fabulous concept that it disappointed me how rote it was in execution. In some ways, this French film is a little less "high concept," with stellar execution all the way around.

Terrific production design here; it deservedly won a Cesar for that, I believe.

Daniel G. said...

Excellent review, Alexander. I'm so glad you saw it and thrilled that you liked it - even, it sounds, more than me. I loved Dujardin and the production design (you're right, it did win the Cesar against stiff competition), even though a couple of the gags fell flat for me (the lights on/off) after multiple tellings.

All in all it's one of my favorites of the year. I would definitely like to see it again, though it unfortunately won't be with a packed festival crowd. That added a lot I think. It was like being in a comedy club.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Daniel. Yeah, I really fell for it. I agree, the lights on-off thing was probably the silliest/dumbest gag but somehow I even found it charming and funny, too. What can I say?

I imagine what kind of an experience that would have been, to see with a full house of festival-goers, Daniel. Sounds terrific.

sluggo the clown said...

saw this not long ago. the scene in the spa reminded me of a trip to this bathhouse thing where i was raped, but after that i came back with a butchers knife and cut into the rapists. or maybe i'm confusing that with EASTERN PROMISES.

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