April 24, 2008

REVIEW: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (A-)

Background: Most Americans, including me, are only familiar with one famously numbered secret agent: 007. It may come as surprise then, to learn that French writers Jean and Josette Bruce's secret agent, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, was the subject of 143 books in their "OSS 117" series, going all the way back to 1949 - 4 years before Ian Fleming wrote "Casino Royale." OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, is both a re-creation and a parody of the original series. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring French comedian Jean Dujardin, the film was nominated for five César Awards in 2007, winning only for its production design. Based on its smashing success at the French box office, keep an eye out for an OSS 117 sequel, and if you speak French, have fun here. If you don't, this will have to do.

Synopsis: When OSS agent Jack Jefferson goes missing in Cairo in 1955, the French government sends his former partner, OSS 117 - Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Dujardin), on a mission to not only find Jefferson, but also create peace in a region saturated with spies. OSS 117 is a dashing, misogynistic, ethnocentric Francophile who distributes photos of the French president as gifts and who, like James Bond, always finds his way out of the most improbable circumstances. His guide in Cairo is Jefferson's former assistant, the gorgeous Larmina (Bérénice Bejo), who helped manage the chicken exporting operation that serves as the cover for the OSS agents. Over the course of the next few days in Cairo, OSS 117 gets mixed up with an Islamic fundamentalist group, some Soviet spies, and some optimistic Nazis. Everyone is double-crossing everyone else, and no one is who they seem. The plot and the rushed ending don't really make sense, but, well...that's kind of the point of a spoof.

I Loved:
+ The production design and cinematography - the film just looks beautiful, like a restored classic with extra attention to detail. That it won the C
ésar against the likes of Lady Chatterley and Indigènes (Days of Glory) says something about how good it really is.
Jean Dujardin - I'd never seen this guy before, but he's a comic genius. I was probably reminded more of Sacha Baron Cohen than anyone else, but I saw Jim Carrey in him as well. Nevertheless, he has his own unique comedic style - and it's on glorious display here.
+ When the spies were reciting cryptic proverbs after the mambo scene.

I Liked:
+ The retro title sequence and fantastic musical score.
+ The scene with the Nazis in the pyramid bunker.
+ That it was filmed in Casablanca, which adequately stands in for Cairo circa-1955.

I Disliked:
- Some plodding moments when the action died down, such as the scene at the French embassy and the overdrawn day spent sitting in the SCEP office.

I Hated:
- That the casting was so obviously inaccurate. Bejo and Atika are Argentinian and Portuguese, respectively, and it was a stretch to see them as Egyptian. A minor quibble.

Writing - 8
Acting - 10
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 4

Total: 21/30= 90% = A-

Last Word: It's so hard not to compare OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, but I'll do my best. Its technical aspects are masterful and absorbing, from the Technicolor to the costumes to the music. It may not look as good on DVD, but it was a sight to see in the theater. The laughs start right away, but unfortunately
OSS 117 loses its momentum too often, and we're left aching for more campy scenes with Jean Dujardin. Director Hazanavicius does well in not trying to hammer the plot home, but some of scenes are awkwardly placed and the repetitive gags start to lose their flavor. The good news is that Dujardin single-handedly carries this film all the way through the end credits, and several of the scenes (getting lost in the maze of streets, waking to the Mezzuin's call) are truly hilarious. If not for some awkward humor and poor writing in the second act, I would be talking about OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies as a potential new classic.


  1. Never even heard of this - thank for putting it on my radar, Daniel. I find I have a love/hate relationship with French cinema, which is fitting since they seem to have a love/hate relationship with everything themselves, especially their own films.

    I will have to look this up whenever it strolls into my neck of the woods.

  2. If you're in the mood for a beautifully shot spoof, this is the one. I was fortunate to catch it at our film festival here, so I'm not sure where else it's available. Netflix? I wouldn't know. Because it was such a smash in France, maybe the sequels will receive a wider release.

  3. Oh man...I'm looking forward to this one. I missed my chance to see it at the COL-COA festival, but it's coming in May.

    Perhaps you haven't heard - Jeff Wells declared it over since it's been kicking around since '06. (rolling eyes)

  4. I'd vaguely heard of this, but I had no idea what it was about. It sounds like a lot of fun, and that old-style trailer is hilarious. Says it just opened in France, maybe I should just take this as an excuse to go to Paris for a weekend ;-)

  5. Daniel - It has been quite a while since I saw this film, but in a year when I was reporting just about every film I saw at the Chicago International Film Festival, I felt no desire to write about this one. I thought it was a mildly entertaining spy spoof, but not nearly as funny as the old TV series Get Smart. It ran out of gas and was, as you say, plodding. I predicted it would get a commercial release because it's got a that foreign spoof thing that made Shaun of the Dead popular, and I was right, at least in Chicago. But I wasn't too impressed.

  6. Yeah, you wouldn't believe it, Craig, but Wells actually saw something before me. Must be nice to get unlimited access to all things film and then sneer at those who don't actually do this for a living (back to Armond White)...

    Hedwig, you should enjoy it if the trailer did anything for you. It's not quite that action-packed, but if you need a reason to casually stroll down to Paris, this is good enough!

    Interesting that it found an audience in Chicago, Marilyn. It was the first film I saw at our festival, so that increased my excitement about it. I'm curious as to how Get Smart will play this summer, too, and to see if we're on the verge of a new generation of spoofs. Some would consider something like Anchorman (my favorite Will Ferrell movie) a spoof, but most of the movies in that vein (even Semi-Pro) don't meet my criteria, namely the obvious referencing to other material.

  7. I've felt pretty let down by the spoofs I've seen over the past 5 years. I just don't see the wit or charm a good spoof has. The Our Man Flint movies are my kind of spoof. I'm also not a big fan of mockumentaries, though I think they're improving. The only one I can unqualifiedly endorse is Incident at Loch Ness.

  8. The whole genre is difficult to define, Marilyn, but I think we've moved out of the best spoof years (depending on your taste, the late 70's through the 80's could be considered a recent golden period). Take mockumentaries, for example - are those spoofs? I think Waiting for Guffman is high comedy, but it's not really spoofing another movie or show, right? I remember some people even called The Host a spoof, which puzzled me. In any case, I'm sad to say I haven't seen either Flint or Loch Ness, but will keep a keen eye out for them.

  9. I really enjoyed The Host’s mix of horror movie drama and, at times, a kind of lo-fi Monty Pythonesque silliness. I understand how it might qualify as a spoof to some.

    I got a real kick out of ‘60’s spoofs like Our Man Flint. Coburn was fun in The President’s Analyst too.

  10. sartre, you bring to mind the grieving scene in the The Host, which was certainly meant as wild comedy. Good catch. Looks like I really need to see Our Man Flint.


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