Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

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OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenwriter: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Aure Atika, Philippe Lefebvre, Constantin Alexandrov
Release Date: 2008-09-17
Genre: Comedy

Apparently it’s possible to be an ugly Frenchman, too. Cold War spy send-up OSS 117 features goofy-grinned Dujardin as the titular secret-agent man, an ignoramus so ethnocentric you can’t believe he’s not American, despite all that subtitled oui-oui-ing. But where U.S. spoofs Our Man Flint and the Austin Powers trilogy riff repetitively on 007’s goofiest tropes, OSS’s best laughs come at the expense of white-man’s-burden occupation ideology.

Dispatched to British-occupied Egypt to solve the murder of his former partner (and, incidentally, to establish lasting peace in the Middle East while he’s in the neighborhood), 117 never bothers blending in with the locals — learning the language, understanding the customs, etc. — instead remaining utterly convinced of his superiority, passing out pictures of the French president and offering helpful pointers for modernization such as dispensing with all the camels and “unreadable” writing. “Yours is a strange religion,” he observes of Islam after the call to prayer disrupts his sleep. “You’ll grow tired of it.” Sounds like somebody’s been moonlighting as a foreign-policy adviser for the Bush Administration.

Originally a pre-Fleming French spy-novel series, OSS is revamped as a James Bond satire, with Dujardin perfectly aping Sean Connery’s effeminate chauvinism and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman faithfully reproducing Dr. No’s flat, washed-out Technicolor, but some humor is lost in translation. Certain innuendos become too subtle or awkward in English, and — as ashamed as I am to admit it — the homoerotic-subtext gags were lost on me until they became increasingly flamboyant because (dumb American that I am) I assumed, you know, that’s just how French dudes are. And as OSS, unrepentant jingoist that he is, continues to succeed through dumb, blind luck, the film becomes increasingly frustrating, but that’s probably a feeling with which many actual Middle Easterners are painfully familiar by now.


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