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January 03, 2013

Recommendation: "OSS 117"

Streaming on Netflix now (and available on disc, I imagine) are a couple of French movies. They're parodies of James Bond films, but a little backstory:

Apparently this "OSS 117" character predates James Bond by four years -- and the "117" might be where Fleming got his own "007." (A commenter reminds me that "007" was taken from the nom de cipher of Elizabeth I's occultist adviser, John Dee.) The writers, a guy named Bruce, and then, when he died, his wife and son, churned out over 250 books about OSS 117. (There's a tradition in France of hiring ghost writers to continue popular series.) There were some serious films about "the James Bond of France" made in the 50s and 60s.

While these new movies, 2006's OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and 2009's OSS 117: Lost in Rio feature the same character and same basic situation (a French secret agent operating in the 50's and 60's), they are parodies of spy movies, especially James Bond films, and pretty hilarious -- even in French.

I'd say it's a French version of Austin Powers but that's not quite right-- people say Austin Powers was a parody of James Bond, but Austin Powers was such a singular mutant creation it's hard to see much of James Bond in him. And to the extent he's a parody, he's more a parody of the 60s era James Bond parodies Matt Helm, Derek Flint, and the Avengers. Stuff that only real spy geeks even remember.

These movies are actually closer to a real parody of James Bond, down to having Connery's exact suits and haircut and a funny actor who looks strangely like a goofy version of Sean Connery. The main actor was the lead in The Artist, where he played a silly, goofily mock-heroic version of Douglas Fairbanks, and here does the same sort of thing with his Bond pastiche.

The schtick in the movies is that the title spy is dumb -- of course. But he's also sexist, absurdly patriotic, and a ridiculous cultural chauvanist; he hands out pictures of the French President to Egyptians he meets and tells them the the picture depicts France's king and will bring them great luck. He also comments, with charming aplomb, on the backwardness of Islamic countries -- "What kind of stupid religion bans alcohol?" He also punches out a muzzein for waking him up with his caterwauling morning call to prayer.

The movies are pretty damn funny -- again, even in French; it's not the wordplay that's funny, just this guy's never-ending cocksure dimness -- but what's really surprising to an American viewer is how politically incorrect this all is. The French are, to put it in a nice way, not as hung up as we are about cultural sensitivity, and, to put in a not nice way, completely racist. Now, the movies are lampooning OSS 117's cringe-worthy cultural insensitivity, but along the way you get some of the most shocking racial humor I've seen since Blazing Saddles.

And I think the movies, especially the sequel, go even further than Blazing Saddles. The first one had some limits, but once that became a hit, the second one pushed everything to 11. Unfortunately, in the second one, he teams up with the Mossad... and his ideas about Jews are, like so much about him, extremely French. The second one really starts to push the envelope into areas where I thought they shouldn't go. Because I like the movies, I sure don't want to think they let themselves go further with the spy's anti-semitism than they did with his anti-Islamism simply because the filmmakers are, in fact, anti-semitic. I'd prefer to think that, as the Spy Who Shagged Me was just the first one again but going even further with the same basic joke, it's just a matter of the sequel going further than the original, and, alas, the sequel explores the infamous French attitude about Jews. And, cringing aside, it's pretty funny.

That warning aside, the movies are pretty damn funny and the character -- a good-natured but dim bumbler like Maxwell Smart but sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, colonialist, and homohobic (but homophobic while barely suppressing strong homosexual tendencies) is completely likable.

Oddly enough the movies take a lot of shots at France, too, and almost none at America. (The only real America-bashing happens in the second when OSS 117 meets his CIA friend, a foul-mouthed Felix Leiter parody who actually looks, when we first see him, a little like Jack Lord in Dr. No. And the only bashing is that this character is a boor and an idiot. But then, so is the French hero.)

Really an unexpected treat. I hope I haven't oversold it. Kind of a must-see for any James Bond fan. The director really gets the look of the early Bond films (especially Dr. No) just right. And the actor is just hilarious.


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posted by Ace at 05:05 PM

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