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05.14.08

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FROM FRANCE WITH LOVE: Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Béjo send up the Bond films in 'OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies'

Familiar Fezzes

Master French spy OSS 117 is armed and ludicrous in 'Cairo, Nest of Spies'

By Richard von Busack


I remember reading that Paris was sold out of white dinner jackets within 48 hours of the premiere of Goldfinger. The nation fell hard for 007, but France had its own James Bond: OSS 117, better known as Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, the subject of hundreds of pulp novels written between 1949 and 1992, as well as several films. There have been funnier spy parodies than Michel Hazanavicius' OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, but none has been quite so politically knowing. In the title role, Jean Dujardin excels at displaying the fatuous side of suaveness; he is as good as the cult comedy/horror star Bruce Campbell. Dujardin has looks on his side. He displays the hair slicked with Vitalis, the arched eyebrows and the widow's peak of Sean Connery, as well as the great star's trick of adjusting the knot of his necktie after every exertion. The illusion of 007-ishness disappears when Dujardin smirks in triumph, giving a wolfish flash of very working-class teeth.

In 1955, Hubert is sent to Egypt to investigate the disappearance of a fellow agent and friend (flashbacks, more than once, of the two men frolicking and wrestling on the beach to suggest just how close they were). After the obligatory inset of a jet landing, we refocus on a hotel bed in Cairo. There OSS 117 is horizontally interrogating Princess Al Tarouk (Aure Atika), the niece of Farouk himself--"the pharaoh of Egypt" is how Hubert describes that deposed monarch.

Disguised as a chicken wholesaler, OSS 117 learns of "The Eagles of Cheops," a Muslim fundamentalist group. The situation on the ground is dicey: "Donkeys and jalabas and writing you can't read." The locals stubbornly refuse a drink, and there's some ruckus from some howling person in a skinny tower. Very backward, even if Egypt has some glories, such as the Suez Canal: "To build this 4,000 years ago was visionary." With growing impatience, his Egyptian secretary, Larmina (Bérénice Béjo), explains what the Frenchman is seeing. Indeed, this kind of back and forth patter grows tedious. Still, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies justifies itself by lampooning the kind of cultural insensitivity that's perhaps even worse in France than it is in the United States.

The film nods to the real-life government fiascos these spy adventures have covered up like shiny paint on a rotten wall. One recurring joke is the agent's reverence for the mediocre French President René Coty, one of the gravediggers of the Fourth Republic. Mostly, Hazanavicius keeps close to the cringe-worthy moments in the Bond films. (Who can forget, or forgive, Roger Moore in Moonraker stuffing a wad of rupees into an Indian's jacket, saying, "This ought to keep you in curry for a little while"?) The best Bond parody here is a climactic girl fight that tops the Gypsy death match in From Russia, With Love. The film also boasts a really winning musical-comedy scene: in disguise as a classical musician, Hubert can't resist breaking into an oud-driven version of the mambo number "Bambina." The music, as well as the costumes, the deadpan dialogue and the Saul Bass-style titles, shows the affection under the criticism. In his most lovable moment, the gauche hero explains how he escaped a watery death trap: "I thought you'd have been eaten by the fishes by now," exclaims the villain. Hubert replies, "They found me inedible. Too many muscles, too much nerve."


Movie Times OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES (Unrated; 99 min.), directed by Michel Hazanavicius, written by Jean-François Halin and Hazanavicius, based on characters by Jean Bruce, photographed by Guillaume Schiffman and starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Béjo, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.


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