Wednesday, June 25, 2008

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

Posted By on Wed, Jun 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Spoofing both the Cold War mindset and the spy movies it spawned, the French film OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is a cinematic bonbon 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 is at once loving and cheeky. In lush widescreen images, he imagines Cairo in 1955 as the crossroads between East and West, a Muslim nation uneasy with postwar 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 screenwriter Jean-François Halin play these characteristics for laughs not by heightening them, but simply letting Bonisseur display his Gallic imperturbability and innate sense of superiority. (He passes out pictures of French President René Coty in lieu of tips.) The colonial empire is beginning to crumble, and this super spy can't see beyond the tip of his own nose.

In a complex plot, where everyone seems to be playing multiple roles 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, 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 high-gloss cinema, coyly exploring some of the undercurrents of sexuality 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.)

OSS 117 echoes similar films in one unfortunate aspect: altering the logic of storylines as it suits them. Like the form-fitted 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.

At the landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at


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