French Farce

Running time 99 minutes
Written by Jean-François Halin
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo

Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, from a screenplay by Jean-François Halin, inspired by the “OSS 117” novels by Jean Bruce, was the Audience Award winner at the Seattle International Film Festival and the Grand Prix winner at the Tokyo International Film Festival. The press release for the film describes it as “the hilariously deadpan French hit comedy and spy satire starring comic celebrity Jean Dujardin. … A cross between James Bond and Austin Powers, Jean Dujardin (star of the hit French comedy Brice de Nice) is OSS 117 (real name: Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath), a French secret agent who first saw print in 1949 as author Jean Bruce’s character, and eventually appeared in 265 novels and seven movies between 1956 and 1970.”

After recounting all this publicity fanfare, I am embarrassed to confess that I have never heard of OSS 117, Jean Dujardin or Jean Bruce. Also, I have never been a particular admirer of either James Bond or Austin Powers, and could hardly be expected to be overjoyed by a “cross between them.” Hence, I was hardly surprised when I didn’t crack a smile over the antics of Mr. Jean Dujardin as OSS 117. At least I must concede that Mr. Dujardin’s broad changes of expression always alerted me to where and when I was supposed to laugh. After a while I began to wonder why people in Paris, Seattle and Tokyo laughed at plot developments I found merely silly. One target of the satire that I thought has been long overdue in American movies was the sentimentality of male buddy-buddy bonding. First, we have two men in bathing suits playing a form of beach ball, falling and tumbling over each other and playfully wrestling. OSS-117 is beside himself with unalloyed pleasure, but his “best friend” sports a slightly more ambiguous expression, which leads to a later betrayal. It doesn’t matter since OSS 117 is indestructible and impervious to subtlety and nuance.

Another thought I had was that the series did not take France very seriously as a would-be world power, and that the babes in the film, especially an Egyptian secretary, luscious Larmina El Akmar Betouche (Bérénice Bejo), never sheds all her clothes even when she is strip-wrestling with an evil babe. Even at this late date in our collective depravity, certain taboos remain in force for certain genres. And OSS 117 is nothing if not commercially calculating.