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Arts & Culture

Review: 'OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies'

Jean Dujardin as OSS 117.
Music Box Films
Jean Dujardin as OSS 117.

In very French fashion "OSS 117" mixes politics and comedy. Director Michel Hazanavicius -- partnering with screenwriter Jean-Francois Halin and using Jean Bruce's original "OSS 117" novels as inspiration -- uses the spy genre to poke fun at Western and European attitudes about the Arab world. De la Bath symbolizes the general smug superiority of the colonizers toward their colonies and their general lack of insight into the middle east and Arab world. That's something that actually resonates quite potently today.

In the press notes, screenwriter Halin says, "The novels contain everything that France was in the 50s -- the fourth Republic, the end of the colonial empire, a rather macho, rather misogynist relationship to women, but also a certain kind of condescension towards colonized people. These components are most certainly not illustrative of Jean Bruce's personality, but constitute the expression of an era... So I reworked and accentuated everything to show that much of what makes up today's society also stems from that period."

Director Hazanavicius adds that "Our OSS 177 is anchored in his era, he is misogynistic, colonialist, homophobic...he's a synthesis of sorts! Everything that's not French, white, male and of his age, is inferior to him. Obviously, the whole discourse of the film, if indeed there is one, is to laugh at all of it!"


Agent OSS 117 in disguise. (Music Box Films)

So part of the humor arises from the incongruity between how accurately the film captures the period that "OSS 117" is set and how we view that world and its attitudes today. But the style of the comedy fluctuates between some rather sophisticated political commentary and excessively broad slapstick (including a chicken fight - and by that I mean using chickens as the weapons in a fight).

One of the things that Hazanavicius nails is the look of those spy films from the 50s and 60s. The clothes, the production design, the bad rear screen projection, the day-for-night shooting - Hazanavicius has all of these elements down pat and the film looks great. Plus there's a bouncy score that conveys a sexy, hip world of espionage. But Hazanavicius' main failing lies in his inability to pace the film well. Everything needs to move at a faster clip to really carry the comedy along and leave no lulls. There's a running gag that involves flashbacks of OSS 117 and his fellow agent frolicking on the beach that really could be cut out completely or at the very least be cut way back.

But the film's other key asset is Jean Dujardin as the Bond-like spy. He's hilarious. In one scene he wakes up with bed head and when he runs his fingers through his hair, it's suddenly perfect and slicked back. In another scene, he's just tied up a sexy enemy whoi begs himto make love to her before he leaves. But he refuses because he felt hurt by an insult she hurled at him. The look he gives her is priceless. He has a goofy and endearing smile and somehow manages to combine Sean Connery's suave appeal with the pomposity and incompetence of Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau. So when he mambos with a gorgeous colleague he notes, "I'm your mirror. I'm gorgeous tonight. The dress hugs my shape with just a hint of modesty." Not every man could give that line just the right comic spin. Dujardin also manages to play a dumb character in a smart way. That's no easy task but he pulls it off with great aplomb. He's apparently adept at such a challenge, having played a dumb surfer to sly effect in "Brice de Nice" (the film has yet to play here).

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (Music Box Films)


"OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" (unrated and in French with English subtitles) is a film that I wanted to like more than I did. It does so many things well, that it's just a shame that Hazanavicius couldn't have tighten the whole thing up so everything could zing along. That being said, it's still a charmer, mostly because of Dujardin's impeccable comic skills. The film ends with OSS 117 being sent to Iran, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for the sequel.

Companion viewing: "In Like Flint," "From Russia With Love," "Austin Powers," "Magnifique"

By the way, the press materials included this information, supposedly from a 1950s British spy manual; the source listed for the guidebook is "Imperial War Museum." Whether you believe it's true or not is up to you. Here's some of the advice served up:

Abstain from drinking, because drunkenness can lead you to say too much.

Do not trust French speakers or those who appreciate France.

Do not ever give any information to a person who is outside of the network.

Account for all the information you can gather, with no prejudice as to its importance.

Go to hotel bars and make a note of the non-indigenous faces you see there on regular basis. They are probably informers for other powers.

Do not leave any written notes in your bedroom or pockets.

While on a mission, keep your weapon and physical shape in perfect condition.

If a women attempts to seduce you, be on your guard.

Never forget that even the slightest bit of information can change the course of History and that any leak can cost lives.

Wonder what kind of advice they give out now?