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OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

Spoofing the Cold War mindset and the spy movies it spawned, French film OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is a cinematic bon bon with a crunchy nut at its center. Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, aka Agent 117 in the Office of Strategic Services, is part James Bond, part Maxwell Smart, arrogant and inept, capable and clumsy, magnetic and charmless. Actor Jean Dujardin even looks like a cross between Sean Connery and Don Adams, and he hits just the right note of irreverent verisimilitude for this witty update of novelist Jean Bruce’s suave serial hero (who first appeared in 1949).

For his feature film debut, director Michel Hazanavicius has made a visual dazzler, a comic homage to stylish espionage films that’s affectionate and cheeky. In lush widescreen images, he imagines Cairo in 1955 as the crossroads between East and West, a Muslim nation uneasy with post-war cosmopolitanism. When Bonisseur arrives in Egypt to investigate the disappearance of his former partner, he swiftly alienates his contact Larmina (Bérénice Béjo) with his cultural arrogance and sexist assumptions. Hazanavicius and co-screenwriter Jean-François Halin mine laughs from Bonisseur’s Gallic imperturbability and innate sense of superiority. (He passes out pictures of French President René Coty in lieu of tips.) The colonial empire is starting to crumble and this super spy can’t see beyond the tip of his own nose.

In an overstuffed plot, duplicity abounds and companies with unwieldy names like the Society of Chicken and Egyptian Poultry (S.C.E.P.) are both competitive enterprises and fronts for political machinations. (Like other escapist spy movies, OSS 117 plays fast and loose with logic.) Only one thing is certain: our myopic hero will manage to offend everyone he meets. Bonisseur even causes an insurrection by attacking a muezzin whose morning call for prayer interrupts his beauty sleep.

With dead on precision, the filmmakers capture the shiny, lacquered look of 1950s cinema, and coyly explore sexual undercurrents that couldn’t be openly discussed. (As in Bonisseur’s vivid description of how his pistol has unsealed the lips of both men and women.) Like the form-fitting dresses favored by heroine and femme fatale alike, this spy genre is beautiful but binding, allowing just enough wiggle room to reveal its distinct charms.

Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on May 9, 2008 by Music Box Films
First published in the Metro Times.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is available on Fandor and Hulu