Wednesday, April 22, 2009

OSS177: Cairo—Nest of Spies

"OSS117: Cairo—Nest of Spies" aka "OSS 117: Le Caire nid d'espions" (Michel Hazanavicius, 2006) If I may speak collectively (and unfairly) for a moment, the French have a singularly exclusive sense of humor running precisely, if more broadly, along the Mel Brooks dictum: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger; Comedy is when you fall down a man-hole and die!"
The French love to laugh at other people. But, like a lot of conservatives, they seem incapable of laughing at themselves. When they make comedies, their sense of the absurd tends to be mixed with the noble—
Jacques Tati's films are restrained manner-comedies mixed with slapstick. Maurice Chevalier was a charming rogue, but never less than charming.

But when
Jean Renoir tried to be satirical about French aristocracy, the citizenry rebelled and Renoir had to cut one of the greatest films ever made, The Rules of the Game, down to a short subject. Don't mention Blake Edwards' Inspector Clouseau to them; they'll throw their dinner plates at you—if only there was enough food on them to cause damage.

The French are farceurs, not comedians.

Now, along comes this charming bon-bon of a spy movie, where they can have their cake and let them eat it, too.

The "
OSS117" series is a long-running series of adventure spy novels from Jean Bruce—there's no Bond rip-off here, OSS117 predates "007"—featuring the adventures of the plucky French spy in globe-totting adventures. During the spy-craze of the 60's, there were many OSS films riding the swinging spy tux-tails, starring, among others, Ivan Desny, Luc Merenda, Kerwin Mathews (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad), Frederick Stafford (Topaz), and pencilled-in Bond John Gavin,* made cheaply in Europe, and successful enough to achieve its own series. But by 1973, with abuses by CIA operatives around the globe, spies went out of favor. The books continued, carried on by the next generation of Bruce's.

And now, the movies have as well, taking the formula that the
Bond producers used to keep Bond jogging in bell-bottom tuxes through the 70's—make it more of a comedy, dammit! But where the Broccoli family has seemed incapable of recreating the glory days of Bond—the epitome being "From Russia With Love," directed by Terence Young, director Hazanavicius takes the style, the look, and the air of brazen world-weariness that Young injected into that film, and does a fairly transparent job of spoofing the misogyny and arrogance of those initial Bond films.

And it's funny as hell. It takes a while to recognize what "
Cairo—Nest of Spies" is doing and get into the rhythm of the thing: is it serious, is it merely being archly ironic, or is this actually trying to be funny? Because there's no big joke in the opening black and white sequence, you might take the cockiness for real rather than the first signs that Agent OSS117 (the remarkably sunny Jean Dujardin) is remarkably clueless, so caught up in himself and his own shining brilliance that he's too dazzled to realize that things around him have gone horribly wrong. Many situations find him waking up from the distractions of himself to find that he's blown it and has to back-track a bit. It's one of the givens of the Bond series that audiences like a "007" film when the agent is enjoying himself. And Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath travels in an impenetrable bubble of self-satisfaction. He even has submerged homosexual urges that he doesn't recognize and that he mis-reads, anyway. He lives in the best of all possible worlds—his own—and his rules are simple: if he doesn't like it, he kills it, seduces it, or ignores it and moves on.

Fortunately, his enemies are just as adept at carrying out a world-enveloping conspiracy: they're not. Where the gears, switches and machinations of most movie-cabals perform flawlessly, this team of neo-Nazi's are more than likely to blow a fuse, or get trapped behind their own secret entrance. As such, there's not an awful lot of suspense (but there isn't in a Bond movie, is there?), and the only concern is how big the explosion will be at the end. "OSS117: Cairo—Nest of Spies" even manages to do that cheerily.

"OSS117" will return. Can't wait.

* Gavin, who starred in "Spartacus" and "Psycho" among others, was set to star in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) until Sean Connery was coaxed back with a record salary. He was paid off to fade into the background, and Ronald Reagan later appointed him Ambassador to Mexico. The best gadget any spy can have is a golden parachute.


wheylona said...

Ah, a lovely review! The new OSS 117--Rio ne repond plus (Rio doesn't answer, +/-)--has just been released in France. Lucky me, I'm going to pop over to France soon to see it.

I've heard that it's both better and worse than Cairo--Nest of Spies; I'll let you know. :-)

Yojimbo_5 said...

Your cryptic comment about it being "both better and worse" had me do a little research (Variety's review is up, and I see what you mean).

The bad news is the title has been Anglicized to "OSS177: Lost in Rio," which is just as plain as brown paper, and has none of the Fleming-ish "wha?" head-tilt factor of "Rio Doesn't Answer" (at least "Quantum of Solace" had that--as did the original title of "Tomorrow Never Dies," which was "Tomorrow Never Lies" [eh?]).

And they DID film is Brasilia (How could they not?)!

Yojimbo_5 said...

Oh! And hey, Wheylona--you could always write a guest review (hint)