Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenplay: Michel Hazanavicius, Jean-Francois Halin
Based on a Series of Novels By: Jean Bruce
Producers: Eric Altmeyer, Nicolas Altmeyer
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 99 min
With widespread acclaim, commercial acceptance and a Best Picture Oscar under its belt, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist can lay claim to being one of the biggest film events of the last few years. A loving tribute to silent movies of the 20s, The Artist was a class act with a wonderful lead performance by Jean Dujardin, who also walked away with an Oscar. Once the buzz from The Artist died down, many film buffs presumably went looking for previous works by Hazanavicius and Dujardin. They may have been surprised by what they found!
Michel Hazanavicius is quite clearly a film buff himself. His first project Le Classe Americaine, a French television movie, was made up entirely of redubbed footage from old Warner Brothers films. His first foray into big screen filmmaking also betrays his love of cinema but it more heavily betrays his off-kilter sense of humour which, if the reviews for the poorly received 2012 anthology film The Players are anything to go by, may come to define his directorial career far more than the classy comedic-melancholia of The Artist. Judging from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies though, that may not be a bad thing.
Hazanavicius’s debut feature is a spy film spoof. Upon hearing these words the majority of us undoubtedly imagine that the Bond films will serve as a template but, while OSS 117 undoubtedly draws on the filmmaking style of that series, the film is actually based on a popular series of French spy novels that predate Ian Fleming’s iconic agent. The character of OSS 117 aka Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath appeared in eight French films throughout the 50s, 60s and early 70s but in these films and the novels he was in fact a serious character. Hazanavicius has conceived a knockabout comic spoof which, with no first-hand knowledge of the original series, is still frequently hilarious and features many recognisable tropes of the spy genre which will strike a chord with audiences unaware of the film’s source material.
The plot, which sees OSS 117 travel to Egypt and stumble upon a web of international intrigue which involves about six different countries and a whole host of oddballs, is of little consequence. As with many over-complex spy films, it is merely a framework on which to hang a series of set-pieces, although Hazanavicius nicely intertwines the comedy with some genuine twists and moments of peril. The character of OSS 117 himself at first seem like a familiar buffoon, prone to egotism, malapropisms and occasional outrageous bigotry. It’s a character we’ve seen many times before but as played by Jean Dujardin, OSS 117 seems fresh and, if not in any sense endearing then certainly consistently amusing. Dujardin arguably has a more difficult role to play here than he did in The Artist. His natural expressiveness made him a natural choice for a silent role but the challenge of making OSS 117 someone audiences would choose to spend 90 minute with is a much more difficult proposition.
Although he has a gallery of weirdos to back him up, Dujardin is almost the whole show. He deftly and somehow believably makes OSS 117 a combination of a sexist but persistent and successful charmer; a physically capable and sometimes impressively nifty agent and a naive, playful and sometimes inscrutably stupid man-child. The material is not always as strong as the performance though. While it mostly relies on chuckle-worthy, sometimes witty verbal humour, OSS 117 occasionally blunders into extremely broad slapstick which seems an odd fit with the rest of the film and pushes towards a Zucker brothers vibe that the film otherwise avoids. For instance, after a pacey and enjoyable 40 minutes set up which relies mainly on a consistent barrage of smaller laughs, Hazanavicius goes for broke and has OSS 117 engage in a fight with an enemy in which they hurl live chickens at each other. The film also can’t resist occasionally plumbing the most well-trodden of crass depths, such as a fight between two women in their underwear or a running gay-gag which starts as a funny mockery of homophobia and gradually begins to move towards the thing itself.
For all its lapses into the predictable however, OSS 117 is always entertaining and moves at such a lick that you never find yourself dwelling on its failures. As well as the dedicated central performance from Dujardin and the snazzy direction of Hazanavicius, OSS 117 also has the visual beauty of cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman to its credit. Schiffman also worked on The Artist and also received an Oscar for his work on that film but his work here is just as impressive. He gives the film an uncanny atmosphere of the 1960s spy film which keeps viewers aware even in the film’s basest moments that they are watching a superior product to the like of Get Smart or Johnny English.
The spoof is perhaps the trickiest of subgenres to pull off successfully but, with his first film, Hazanavicius has pulled off an impressive little comedy with plenty for film buffs like himself to enjoy. Like the Austin Powers franchise at its best, OSS 117 is often a cleverer film than many would give it credit for, although like many pastiches (The Artist included) it is often also sometimes a less clever film than it thinks it is. But the important thing in this case is that OSS 117:Cairo: Nest of Spies is a damn entertaining film, which was clearly its goal above all else. It’s certainly made me want to check out Hazanavicius’s 2009 follow-up OSS 117: Lost in Rio and left me keen to see more of his films in future, without even an inkling of what direction he might take next.