Thursday 19 January 2012

Obscurity Files - OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

What with The Artist entertaining audiences in the cinemas at the moment, I thought I'd take a look at one of star Jean Dujardin's earlier roles. It turns out that The Artist was no fluke. Join me to find out why, next...

You've seen The Artist, right? The black and white French silent film that looks set to take the Oscars by storm at this year's ceremony? Well, I'm sure you've at least heard of it, as it's hard to escape its success at the moment. Before The Artist was even a twinkle in the eyes of director Michel Hazanavicius and lead actor Jean Dujardin, they made OSS 117, a spy spoof that saw Dujardin appear as France's top secret agent on a mission to the treacherous land of Egypt.

Whereas The Artist wasn't what you'd call a spoof (even if it did satirise some elements of silent cinema), OSS 117 is played totally for laughs. It brings to mind the Austin Powers series of films, but really the closest comparison is The Naked Gun franchise. This film starts with OSS 117, or Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath to give him his full name, kicking a Nazi out of a plane and delivering the immortal line, "Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Colonel". If he'd have been around in WW2 that's exactly the sort of thing you'd expect Frank Drebin to say.

Director Michel Hazanavicius clearly has been influenced by Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, which I think means that Jean Dujardin is the new Leslie Nielsen. Perhaps Hazanavicius (along with wife/star Berenice Bejo) is also the French answer to Mel Brooks, who indeed made his own Silent Movie back in 1976 and had a habit of casting his wife, Anne Bancroft, in roles you wouldn't expect to see a glamourous woman like her in. One scene in Cairo: Nest of Spies is pure ZAZ madness, when Hubert gets cornered in the chicken factory and resorts to defending himself by throwing live chickens at his attacker. It's brilliant.

Sorry, no embeddable clip but you can see it by clicking above.
One thing that Dujardin was understandably unable to express in The Artist is how much a smooth talker he is. Here he's constantly saying the wrong thing, leaving awkward pauses when he realises he's said something stupid, proud of himself when he makes a witty quip. Hubert Bonnisseur De La Bath is a man who's always impressed with himself, a feeling we share when he hits the dancefloor. If you thought the dancing scenes in The Artist were good, wait until you've seen Dujardin and Bejo doing the mambo.

Based on a series of pulpy French novels that have a set of fantastically bawdy front covers, the character had been adapted earlier to the big screen between 1957 and 1970, but during that incarnation was played straight; very much France's answer to James Bond, but before Bond had even hit the big screen.

With his sharp suits and ever so slightly receding hairline, there's definitely a similarity between Dujardin and Connery's Bond. The fact that the literary incarnation of OSS 117 pre-dates Fleming's James Bond by four years is surprising, but looking at their respective histories, there's a lot that ties the characters together. A womanising spy played by multiple actors across many decades, with new writers taking on the character after the death of the original author. It could be argued that OSS 117 isn't the French Bond, but that 007 is the English Hubert Bonissuer de La Bath.

But whereas Bond started his cinematic journey with a spoof (in 1967's Casino Royale) before ending up where he is now as the deadly serious and stoney-faced Daniel Craig, OSS 117 has taken the opposite journey, starting serious before finding his funny bone with what could be described as the Brady Bunch Movie of spy movies.

Just like Bond, OSS 117 also has his share of the ladies. By his side for most of the film is Berenice Bejo (Dujardin's co-star in The Artist), but Hubert keeps her there mostly to stop people insinuating about his sexuality and his blatantly homo-erotic relationship with his fellow agent Jack. However, what he fondly remembers as him and Jack rolling around on the beach playing paddle ball is in actual fact him bullying Jack mercilessly.

Ignorant of the land and culture he's arrived into, when his Egyptian contact describes him as "very, very French", he takes it as nothing but a compliment. There's plenty of references to Muslim culture and immigration and its place in French society which (pardon my ignorance) is something of an inside joke that most people outside of France might not get.

I'm on record as saying that I loved The Artist. This might well be better. Okay, so it might not have the special quality of being a "love letter" to silent cinema, but this is a brilliant and hilarious comedy that I could watch over and over again. Followed up by a 2009 sequel that stuck OSS 117 in Rio, ten years later in the swinging 60's, I just hope that the overwhelming success that The Artist has brought Hazanavicius and Dujardin won't stop them from making more of these films.

Forget The Artist, this is Jean Dujardin's best role so far. Played with a straight face, it's part Austin Powers, part Naked Gun, utterly French. If you have the means, go watch OSS 117 now.

Save from obscurity? YES.


  1. I watched this ahead of seeing The Artist and really loved it. Dujardin is just such a likeable performer, even when he's playing egocentric bumblers.

    1. Agreed. I'm a little bit hooked on Dujardin at the moment having seen this, its sequel and The Artist in quick succession. There's also some great videos of him going around acting like a bit of a dick. He's pretty cool and I'm glad we'll probably be seeing more of him after The Artist. I can see OSS in America working.