I love a good spy movie. I grew up secretly reading my older brother’s stash of James Bond paperbacks; and my first spy movie (seen in a big, old movie palace) was Goldfinger (I was nine years old). So my love of the genre was instilled at an early age, and highly influenced by 007 (Sean Connery era) and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. And because of those influences, I have always believed that a good spy film can be funny (in an ironic sort of way) as long as it is sufficiently dark. And a “spy-thriller” comedy is more successful (artistically, if not financially) if it refuses to completely forsake the suspense in the service of the jokes.
Opening today in limited release is the French language (with English subtitles) film OSS-17: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which effectively satirizes not only the Bond franchise, but the entire spy-thriller genre.
Spy genre parodies have existed on film (and in literature) for ages, from In Like Flint in the 1960s to Austin Powers in more recent times. Often intentionally and overtly over the top, they sometimes eliminate all vestiges of suspense for cheap laughs; chilling foes for caricatures painted in only the broadest of strokes. Even the Bond movie franchise itself fell prey in its 45-year existence to deadly self-parody (and I’m not counting the hysterical original Casino Royale). Call me a buzz-kill, but as much a fan of the genre that I am, I’ve always been a hard sell when it comes to parodies. But when the satire is subtler, the humor more wry and ironic than cheap and slapstick, and blended with social commentary and great cinematography, la voila, as they say in France, you have success. Even when the hero himself is a bit of a buffoon. And the plot is ridiculously silly. Hugh Laurie’s novel The Gunseller, for example, is brilliant at lovingly satirizing the genre, while making us genuinely feel the peril at hand; never letting the suspense take a back seat, espeically as the novel draws toward it tense climax.
Nest of Spies stars French comic actor Jean Dujardin, as Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, French agent OSS-117. Based on a French spy novel series from the 1950s and 1960s (which spawned its own film series at the time), and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, the film remains faithful to the genre it satirizes, paying homage to the noir-ish spy thrillers of the 1950s (complete with a Peter Lorre lookalike) and Connery-era James Bond.
The film’s pre-credits sequence takes place in 1945 with an obvious homage to the airport scene in Casablanca — but then turns it completely on its head. The remaining action takes place 10 years later as Hubert finds himself in Nasser’s Egypt on the trail of his missing comrade. From there, the xenophobic and completely clueless secret agent stumbles his way through the usual retinue of pretty women, spies, assassins, and dirty-dealing businessmen.
The film plays with the tension between the way in our hero views the Middle Eastern culture around him (as it was through a colonialist lens) and our own lens, which has had 50 years of revolts, wars, and the downfall of European colonial rule. But what I enjoyed most about the film was the way in which it maintains the atmosphere and tone of the genre it satirizes, lovingly playing with iconic pop cultural and classic film images, rendering them slightly askew, viewed through an ironic lens. The results is a comedy that is at once stylish and silly, both broadly funny and subtly dry in its humor — something completely different.
A sequel is currently in production. Can’t wait.