Amid the avalanche of overproduced and overmarketed films that flooded movie theaters in the summer of 2006 (Poseidon, Miami Vice, Lady in the Water and Snakes on a Plane to name a few), a gallic import flew in under the radar and delighted any moviegoer willing to give in to its droll sense of humor and fond appreciation of the spy thriller genre of the sixties. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies was a huge box-office hit in France and Europe but it barely lasted a week in many of its U.S. playdates.
Based on a series of popular OSS 117 novels penned by French writer Jean Bruce before Ian Fleming’s James Bond series appeared in print, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is a complete spoof of the franchise and its super cool, macho hero, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, who is depicted here as insensitive, arrogant, racist, jingoistic, infantile and cruel to chickens. Jean Dujardin (Deerskin) with his dapper demeanor and stolid appearance completely inhabits the part, creating the most beautifully sustained comic performance since Ryan Gosling’s unpredictable balancing act in Lars and the Real Girl (2007).
There are certain aspects of Dujardin’s creation that may remind you of Don Adams’ secret agent Maxwell Smart from the TV series Get Smart or even Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. But very little about Dujardin’s performance or director Michel Hazanavicius’s comedic approach will remind you of the Austin Powers films and that’s a good thing.
Scatological, gross-out humor and raunchy sex jokes are not part of the mix here. Instead, OSS 117’s colonialist attitude and clueless behavior about the Muslim culture he has entered draw the biggest laughs, with many of the jokes delivered like little blackout sketches that have an odd, delayed effect. You’ll suddenly find yourself chuckling minutes later after witnessing some bit of foolishness or absurdity and long to see it again a la instant replay.
In one sequence, OSS 117 is awakened by the muezzin’s call to prayer that reverberates throughout Cairo as it does in most Muslin countries (the movie was actually filmed in Casablanca, Morocco). Outraged, he climbs the nearby tower and berates the holy man for rudely interrupting his sleep and proceeds to broadcast his annoyance to the city over the tower’s loudspeaker.
In another scene, he tells an Egyptian government worker, “It’s 1955! You’ve got donkeys in the streets, men wearing jellabas, writing nobody can read. Time to grow up!” He tells another, “Yours is a strange religion. You’ll grow tired of it.” Somehow Dujardin turns this insufferable creature into a hilarious idiot.
Then there’s his perverse side. In one sequence that takes place in a warehouse filled with roosting chickens, he discovers that manipulating the lights can fool the birds into thinking it’s dawn with the expected cacophony. His childlike, slightly sadistic obsession with this becomes a hilarious visual gag that is repeated throughout the film.
The most memorable chicken scene though is the outrageous fight sequence where OSS 117 and an assassin try to kill each other by using chickens as lethal flying projectiles. It really is very sick and I’m sure I’ll go to hell for laughing so hard. Is the French film industry monitored by the ASPCA? Apparently not or perhaps the filmmakers found some excellent stunt chickens.
OSS 117 also fancies himself as a debonair ladies’ man and for a brief moment he acts the part in one scene as the camera pulls away discreetly from showing one of his triumphant seductions. Then you see his tuxedoed body in a mirror reflection, frantically dry humping his conquest on the bed. Very classy! The real romantic stuff is saved for the homoerotic flashbacks when La Bath recalls his close fellow agent Jack Jefferson (Philippe Lefebvre) and their frolic on a deserted beach. James Bond would be deeply embarrassed.
The only time our hero looks genuinely aroused by the two gorgeous leading ladies – Berenice Bejo and Aure Atika – is when the two women are engaged in an over-the-top catfight on a fishing pier and he does nothing to stop them as they rip each other’s clothes off. Ooo-la-la!
Just when you think OSS 117 has no redeeming features though, he’ll surprise you, revealing some hidden talent like appearing in disguise as an Egyptian musician and performing an impromptu solo in front of a nightclub crowd that goes crazy for him. His performance of “Bambino” (originally written in 1955) with its exotic Middle Eastern orchestration is the perfect music video and went viral on Youtube almost as soon as this film was released.
In fact, the film’s score is composed of selections by the late Michel Magne (he committed suicide in 1984) who wrote the music for some of the original OSS 117 movies and other espionage/suspense thrillers like Fantomas (1960) and The Sleeping Car Murder (1965).
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies also features stunning art direction by Maamar Ech-Cheikn, which won a Cesar award, and includes one fantastic underwater sequence with Dujardin performing a Houdini stunt amid a graveyard of skeletons.
Thanks to the success of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies in Europe, director Hazanavicius and star Dujardin returned for the sequel, OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009), which was barely released in the U.S. It is a fitfully amusing follow-up but lacks the consistently looney fun of the original. Surprisingly enough, Dujardin returned to the role for a third time in OSS 117: From Africa with Love (2011), directed by Nicolas Bedos. The film has come under fire from the me too. Movement and other critics for its intentionally sexist, racist and numbskull sense of humor and has yet to find a U.S. distributor. However, fans of Dujardin’s previous spoofs will probably love it and director Bedos has defended his movie, stating, “It’s not just the politically incorrect with its necessary provocation and shock factor I’m after, it’s the freedom to express humour. We’re making movies for spectators, not for Twitter !”
After I first saw OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, I became curious about the real McCoy and the many novels and film versions spawned by Jean Bruce, who authored 91 books on his own. After his death from a car accident in 1963, his wife Josette wrote another 143 OSS 117 novels! The first OSS 117 novel was published in 1949, which predates Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel – Casino Royale (1952) – by three years. Needless to say, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath aka OSS 117 in the original novels is a secret agent hero, not a bumbling fool.
The first film version featuring Bruce’s creation appeared in OSS 117 N’est Pas Mort in 1957 starring Ivan Desnay, which beat the first James Bond film adaptation Dr. No (1962) to the screen by 5 years. Of course, hardly anyone remembers the Bruce novels or their film versions today but they were moderately successful during the 007 spy craze of the 1960s.
Secret agent OSS 117 has been portrayed on the screen by such actors as Kerwin Mathews, Frederick Stafford, Luc Merenda, John Gavin and Alan Scott. In September 2017, Kino Lorber released an OSS 117 3-disc collection of 5 films and movie buffs were finally able to assess these B-movie knockoffs. All of them are well worth seeing but my favorites are probably OSS 117 is Unleashed (OSS 117 se dechaine, 1963) starring Kerwin Mathews, who makes a dashing protagonist amid picturesque locations on the island of Corsica, and OSS 117: Mission for a Killer (1965), featuring the formidable Frederick Stafford in the title role battling enemy agents in Rio de Janeiro.
But if you’re looking for something sublimely silly, I recommend OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Either you’ll fall under its looney spell or you’ll sit stone-faced in front of it, never cracking a smile. It might depend on your mood when you see it or whether you are rarely amused by French film comedies. I admit I fall into the latter category but this one cracked me up.
By the way, Jean Dujardin, his co-star Berenice Bejo and director Michel Hazanavicius from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, would become much better known to American audiences in 2011 when they reunited for the silent era comedy, The Artist. The sleeper hit managed to garner 10 Academy Award nominations including Best Original Screenplay (by Hazanavicius) and Best Supporting Actress (Bejo). Even more surprising, The Artist won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Dujardin), Best Director (Hazanavicius), Best Costume Design (Mark Bridges) and Best Original Music Score (Ludovic Bource).
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies was released on DVD by Music Box Films in September 2008 but it has yet to be issued on Blu-ray in the U.S. Maybe in the near future we will see a Blu-ray triple feature release of all three OSS 117 films starring Jean Dujardin.
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