The Film: Oss 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

The Principles: Director — Michel Hazanavicius, Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Aure Atika

The Premise: It’s 1955, and Europe is teeming with spies and intrigue.  OSS agent Jack Jefferson goes missing, and is believed dead.  It falls to his best friend OSS 117 to investigate what happened to him on the dusty and noisy streets of Cairo.   It’s a plot that involves the Soviets, the British, the Egyptians, the Germans, and the French.   OSS 117 will have to tread carefully, blend in, and use all of his lethal cunning to discover what evil lurks beneath diplomatic facades.

He’s France’s greatest spy. Unfortunately, he’s also a total idiot.

Is It Good: It depends on your definition of good. But yes, I think it is.  It’s incredibly broad and on-the-nose, much like Austin Powers was, but with far more polish. This is France, after all. They don’t go for as much toilet humor, but they do like cornball chicken fights. (Yes. There’s a chicken fight.)

The main reason this works is Dujardin, who is handsome enough to be a riff on Sean Connery, and knows how to pose, preen, and brood like he’s James Bond.  But he’s also game for any goofy thing they throw at him, and he plays every moment right.   A lot of comedic performers can’t veer wildly between campy and urbane, but Dujardin does, and he hits the tone so perfectly that it takes off in every scene.

Incidentally, you may remember him from that trippy Lucky Luke trailer that made the Internet rounds.  He’s versatile! He has dignity in even the wackiest situations.  We need to import this guy, pronto.

Is It Worth A Look: Yes, absolutely, if only for the production design.   They spared no expense recreating a swinging, sexy 1955 and it’s lush with polished wood, geometric artwork, and popsicle colors.  Every suit and gown is crisp and sharp.   And because this is A Spy Movie, Cairo is portrayed as cartoonishly as possible.

It knows its 60s cinema conventions too, and it wisely plays them as straight it can until the cameras can’t wait any longer, and they have to crack a joke.  Watch for a particularly sharp moment during a love scene when it pans to two entwined roses. It might be the funniest one of the movie.

A big part of the humor actually comes from OSS 177’s utter disregard and disrespect for Egyptian culture, Arabic language, and Islam.   He’s rabidly pro-France and pro-Europe, and  he says and does some incredibly offensive things to the native people.   He’s painted as such a broad clown that only the most militant and humorless would find offense, yet I’m still surprised they got away with it. I don’t think we would here.  However, if you know anything about France’s thorny relationship with its Muslim citizens, you have to wonder who the jokes are really on.  Is OSS a gentle riff on the hysteria surrounding the hijab? Or are the French “safely” expressing their true feelings in childish humor?  Tough to say, but worth thinking about.  Satire always has some method to its madness.

OSS 117 isn’t a fantastic movie, or even a particularly sharp comedy.  There are some people who will find it utterly annoying and repetitive. But it’s got a lot of charm and nostalgia in its yellow-drenched frames. It’s light watching. (And it’s on Instant Watch!) Sometimes, that’s all you need.