May 16, 2010

DVD Review: OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (2006)

DVD Review: OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (2006)

This isn't quite a repost, since the original content has been adapted, modified and expanded upon, but this post is predominantly based on my original 2007 review of the Canadian DVD, and also includes material from my year-end "Best of 2008" post, when I selected OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies as the best spy film of the year based on its U.S. theatrical run, as well as several other posts from across my years of covering this movie... and, of course, completely new material.
Director Michel Hazanavicius's OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies resurrects novelist Jean Bruce’s titular hero as a comedic version of himself–as well as of James Bond and countless other Eurospy types. As played by Jean Dujardin, OSS 117 (aka Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath) comes off as a slightly more competent version of The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau. His competence comes in his fighting abilities, though, not in deductive reasoning. He represents everything that’s worst about the West and about colonialism, primarily in his total ignorance to other cultures. He laughs at the Arabic language and dismisses Islam as "a fad" that will never catch on. He’s hopelessly patriotic, believing his own government can do no wrong at all; he carries around pictures of French president Rene Coty and distributes them to various Egyptians he meets. Dujardin’s version of OSS 117 is a clever comedic creation, smoothly sending up the annoying smugness and utter arrogance of all the Eurospy heroes of the Sixties. And he's got the crucial "spy eyebrows" down pat!

His mission takes him to Cairo, naturally, to investigate the disappearance of his predecessor and childhood friend, Jack. In Cairo his cultural obliviousness sidetracks him again and again, and it’s only with the aid of his beautiful local contact Larmina (Bernice Bejo) that he manages to get anything done. Despite her help, he still manages to offend her, her people and her religion time and again.

On one level, the movie is a sharp satire on global politics and Western ignorance, sending up the culture of the "Ugly American," even if it does so with a Frenchman instead. But on another level, it’s a rather silly slapstick spy farce. This may slightly impede its success as a biting satire, because it dulls the blows with pratfalls, but the lighter tone is nevertheless to the movie’s overall advantage. It comes off as a daft, enjoyable comedy that actually makes a few good points if you stop and think about it, but certainly doesn’t hit you over the head with them. It's the perfect cocktail of slapstick and satire, really.

The biggest laughs come from those moments of sheer silliness. Bath becomes obsessed with the poultry business that serves as his French Secret Service cover. When the lights go on, the chickens all start clucking madly. When the lights go off, they shut up. Fascinated by this behavior, he amuses himself over and over again by flipping the light switch on and off, on and off. It doesn’t sound like much on paper (or computer screen), but it’s a very effective gag, especially as a punctuation to another character’s remark that Bath is either "very stupid or very smart."

The production values are impressive all around, and the filmmakers do an excellent job mimicking Technicolor films of the Fifties and Sixties. They incorporate grainy stock footage and obvious models, as well as rear projection, plenty of Brill cream, a suitably retro score (though not as good as Michel Magne's original OSS 117 themes) and cool studio-bound sets. The best of those sets is a Neo-Nazi enclave hidden inside a pyramid and decked out with the requisite swastika flags, as well as an array of security monitors that use a new technology to record their feeds onto magnetic tape. (Appropriate, since Eurospies were always on the cutting edge of technology. We may still not have a disintegration ray, but at least VCRs have come and gone!) I love the attention to period detail, which calls to mind similar techniques in Todd Haynes’s fantastic Far From Heaven and Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German. Here, it's used (very successfully) to add another layer of amusement, but I would still love to one day see a spy film shot in such a retro style, but played straight and implementing modern action and pacing.

If the retro recreation idea particularly appeals to you, or if you are a big fan of the (original) Pink Panther films then you should definitely check out OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies. It's a perfectly crafted love letter to the films of that era and a damning send up of them at the same time–and just a really hilarious comedy. I liked this film plenty the first time I saw it, but on (frequent) subsequent viewings, it's really become one of my very favorite spy comedies–and one of my favorite spy films, period.  It ranks with Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum as one of the best of this past decade, for sure.

When I first reviewed this film, it was only available in America as an import from France or Canada.  Now, we're very fortunate to have it readily available on a Region 1 DVD from Music Box Films.  And unlike the French and Canadian releases, the Music Box Films DVD includes English subtitles on its (non-anamorphic) special features: an insightful 18-minute Making Of documentary, a gag reel and more than 15 minutes' worth of deleted scenes.

At eleven minutes, the gag reel definitely outstays its welcome. It consists mostly of Dujardin cracking himself up (which is amusing the first few times), he and other actors swearing, and line flubs that probably lose some of their humor in translation. I'm not really a fan of gag reels anyway, though. Much better are the copious deleted scenes. Most of them run rather long and were probably wisely cut for pacing... but are still genuinely hilarious. My favorite is an extension of the light switch/chicken joke, in which OSS 117 tries to recreate the experiment in his hotel room by making his own clucking noices as he toggles his light switch. Another good one finds him chasing an errant foul around his office, eventually at gunpoint. All of the clips are set up with brief text intros situating them in the context of the film, which is helpful.

The Making Of is quite well done.  In addition to some of the standard things we expect of such a featurette, like time-delay shots of sets being constructed and convivial on-set clowning, a substantial amount of time is devoted to the filmmakers' exacting efforts to recreate the look, feel and charm of a 1950s Technicolor film.  All the key department heads are interviewed, each discussing how the period style affects their particular field. It's fascinating to hear how not only the director and actors adapted their methods, but also the cinematographer, the stunt men, the set designers and the special effects coordinators.  They all talk about recreating the look of Fifties Technicolor movies by doing everything the way they would have had to do it then. For example, director of photography Guillaume Schiffman used only dollies and zooms to maintain what he calls "very plain shots." Even the lights they used were from the 1950s; "they soften faces and make nice shadows."

The writers and actors also discuss linguistic subtleties that English-speaking viewers probably miss, which I found interesting. Actress Aure Atika says that Hazanavicius wanted the film to sound like a dubbed movie (meaning an English film dubbed into French, as the early Bonds would have played). "They had a very peculiar tone," she explains.  Watching these films, I've occasionally wished that English dubbed versions had been created to parody that particular cadence and style of voice acting so familiar to fans of Sixties European cinema, but it never occurred to me that perhaps they'd already done exactly that in their own language!  We're also treated to some cool behind-the-scenes footage of the actors filming rear projection driving scenes, and Schiffman sings the praises of the set decorators, explaining how important it is that the sets look like they're right out of a Fifties film. "The set itself is not funny. Jean will be what's funny."  I thought that was an excellent point.

This featurette also delves briefly into the storied history of the character, and we're even treated to some clips from the original Sixties OSS 117 films. Producer Nicolas Altmayer reveals that the project's origin is based on memories of paperback book covers in his parents' library, which led him to the idea of creating a new film based on Jean Bruce's OSS 117 series.  Co-writer Jean-François Halin says that he read a few of the books and watched a few of the movies. (Not too surprsing since the opening sequence, in which OSS 117 faces some Nazis on a plane in the closing days of WWII, actually comes directly from Bruce.) It quickly became apparent to him and Hazanavicius that the existing ingredients only needed to be exaggerated slightly to become jokes.  "We kept the rules," says Dujardin, "but shook them a little to make them funny."

The DP addds that Dr. No was a big influence as well (obviously!), "because it's the best and we thought that Jean and Sean look a lot alike. And HItchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much because it is set in Morroco for the colors, the way it was filmed, how it looks willingly fake." Halin also shares some good insight into what makes Dujardin's version of Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath such a winning comedic creation. "It was funny to have a character so skilled and so clever... and yet so dumb."  It may be simply phrased, but that's really an excellent summation of the carefully crafted paradox that makes the character work.  Bernice Bejo chimes in with the other key to keeping him likable: he never does anything out of malice. He tries to do the right thing, and his mistakes and cringe-inducing xenophobia can all be chalked up to ignorance, not spite.  It's a real feat to make such a character a compelling lead, and the team behind OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies and its sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio has managed to pull it off twice!

Read my theatrical review of OSS 117: Lost in Rio here.

Read my introduction to the character of OSS 117 here.
Read my review of OSS 117 se déchaîne here.
Read my review of Banco à Bangkok pour OSS 117 (aka Panic in Bangkok aka Shadow of Evil) here.
Read my review of Furia à Bahia pour OSS 117 (Fury in Brazil, aka OSS 117: Mission For a Killer) here.
Read my review of Atout coeur à Tokyo pour O.S.S. 117 (aka OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo) here.
Read my review of Pas de Roses pour OSS 117 (aka OSS 117: Murder For Sale) here.
Read my review OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d'espions (OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies) here.
Read my DVD review of OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus (OSS 117: Rio Doesn't Answer, aka OSS 117: Lost in Rio) here.


Elliot James said...

This was close to a Gallic version of the Leslie Nielsen US comedies, although not as slapstick and absurd.

Josh said...

David Cornwell & TTSS

"Maybe,I don't know, I think not, Once"


John le Carre (DCornwell)

Long regarded by even the most anti-Carre as one of the better espionage thrillers of the latter half of the twentieth century.

Intellectual, clerical, even, in nature, as a novel.

I have spent a reading youth in the pages of what Elliot described as the "wilderness of mirrors" and I can say that I have read three books that were comparable to TTSS.

Herein lies the wonder and joy of TTSS: those three books were in a spy pentateuch that came out, as a collection, around 1955.

The individual thrillers were published in the first half of the twentieth century.


The cream of one genre from one block of less than six contiguous decades is usually an acceptable indictment of the genre itself, the novel and the fears/hopes-of-the-time factor.

TTSS rests head and shoulders above almost every other idea in the spy thriller world from the latter half of this century.

"The seminal Cold War masterthriller" would be printed on a foundation of truth if you read it on one of the myriad reprints that will resurface for all of the poor souls that didn't even like to read before they saw the upcoming (at least US release) TTSS talkie.

Carre is a known quantity... he is smart enough to never admit to fancying himself a salted spy, although he was schooled, trained and briefly worked as one. He is a man of thoughts awash in his own evident and tragic mortality and thus helplessness. He is a '68er who is a student of history: this allows him to at once love and hate all that is America, Britain and the misaptly named 'Western Society' in general. Charmingly, he cannot revile the exotic, whether in folk, creed or land.

His whinings resonate with the left...his honesty in relating realities thrums soothingly with the right, and all can sit around the boma with fire-warmed shins and make the clinkety scotch compromise becuase you know old John would join you were he as base a man as you (which by his own admission he ardently is).

His writing is at least unique, at most brilliant.

He'll ramble you for a few pages, wasting your time until suddenly you don't know much about the characters, but you KNOW them, and now he's got you yearning for the facts but he's only slopping you a gruel that throbs from senses to land to minutiae to fiction to history to personal terrors and human hopes and suddenly the hunt is on because everything is game.

Few authors are as beholden to literature's almighty show & tell ("Good writers don't tell, they show").

Few authors remain as true to what they love while at once roaming the great wilderness of our globe both in story and, surely, in life.

And only le Carre has the eyebrows of a musk ox, the chizikian chin that juts him into relevance nearly as sharply as his bleeding conscience, the eyes of a reveler and the soul of a man who would risk it, all of it, to do the right thing if only he could figure out what it was.

I, myself, love him as a wordfather, a man who I once dismissed for a rambling whiner but now treasure for the instructive and purely delightful polonial tale-forger that he is.

I take this time, early before work, to execute the Golden Rule and review one of his in the ancient and infant hope that he'll someday review one of mine.


Josh said...


I realize this is erroneously filed.

Tanner, you file it correctly, if you'd rather not, email me and i'll come back and sort it later.

January 12 is US nationwide date as of now.

Josh said...


Wanted to call you Brisco, not Tanner, but all i could remember was the russian lady that ate lobster bisque next to me last night at the bar.

so i guess if you want you can call me Bisquo, becuase although i am Viceroy, i look like a Bisquo.

Tanner said...

Hi Josh (or Viceroy, or Bisquo),

Unfortunately, Blogger doesn't let me shift other people's comments to different posts. You've written some really great thoughts out here about TTSS, and I'd hate for them to remain hidden on the wrong post, so I would suggest that you copy and paste them into a new comment on my TTSS review. I can then delete these ones from here.

I hope you check back here, because I can't find an email on your blog.

Anyway, you make some excellent points about le Carre and I thank you for sharing them here!