“The Artist” took some of the highest honors at the Academy Awards this year — Best Picture, Director and Actor. In light of this victory, I want to highlight an earlier film from director Michel Hazanavicius that also stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. It’s not the emotionally gratifying spectacle of “The Artist,” but it’s definite proof that Hazanivicius is not a one-trick pony, and his actors can transition seamlessly between acting for silent and sound cinema.
“OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” is the first of two films Hazanivicius made parodying the “superspy” genre, specifically the 1950s “OSS 117” novels and “James Bond.” Jean Dujardin plays the Bond analogue Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, codename OSS 117. He is a charismatic French spy, grappling with Nazis in the 1940s, then managing Cold War relations a decade later. He’s sent to Cairo to investigate the disappearance of a Soviet tanker and fellow agent OSS agent 283, or Jack (Philippe Lefebvre). His is a name whispered lovingly by Hubert, accompanied by flashbacks to the two cementing their relationship as BFFs, playing paddle ball on the beach, laughing and rolling around in Speedos as the romantic violins soar.
In Cairo he rendezvous with Larmina El Akmar Betouche (Bérénice Bejo), Jack’s secretary and 117’s main contact. She takes pride in being an Egyptian citizen, yet speaks perfect French and never imposes her nationality on others. She has little patience for 117’s boorish nationalism and ignorance — like Bond, he travels around the world without understanding the cultures he visits. He waxes poetic about how the Suez Canal was built thousands of years before, only for Lamina to answer, “The Suez Canal was built 86 years ago.” Later he silences a man announcing Morning Prayer in order to sleep quietly, jumpstarting an early Muslim revolution.
The plot quickly disappears behind an ensemble of eccentrics from various parts of a globe that include the sultry Princess of Egypt (Aure Atika) and the first wave of neo-Nazis, led by the vengeful Moeller (Richard Sammel), but if we don’t make much headway into the film’s central mystery until the last 15 minutes, it’s compensated by Dujardin’s construction of 117, a fascinating, hilarious personality distinct from his influences. As in “The Artist,” he radiates charm with his bright smile and booming laughter. Most the ladies want him, though he has the mentality of a mildly precocious eight-year-old, immaturity that manifests as intense egotism and intense bouts of OCD. He abandons an investigation into a politician’s office when the cushy office chair proves more interesting. In the film’s most priceless scenes, a light switch and a warehouse filled with chickens combine to entertain 117 until the wee hours of morning.
Like the “Naked Gun” films and original “Get Smart” TV series, “Cairo, Nest of Spies” understands the best parodies and satire don’t aim to one-up the original material so much as embody it, tweaking a few details to emphasize how absurd the premise was from the start. More so than any modern satire, “Cairo, Nest of Spies” recreates its spoofed genre’s most authentic details — the back projection for car scenes, the brass-heavy orchestration (brilliant work by composer Claude Blondy) and the villain’s maniacal declamations — with a loving eye. Once the setting and mood are in place, then, the jokes have a context to bounce off of. They resonate not only in general laughs but specific overlap: you ever notice how each Bond film has a guy trailing 007, reporting his every move and nothing else? How about the vague, surreptitious exchanges between spies and confidants, here represented as 117 and his colleagues speaking intensely in clichés and aphorisms?
There’s even room to dip into some more serious satirizing. 117’s cartoonish chauvinism, homophobia and ethnic insensitivity are sources of amusement but also sharp critiques of the attitudes behind actual spy films. “Cairo, Nest of Spies” is loving and scathing, irreverent but always aware of each move it makes. It takes a strong film foundation to make a genre homage that straddles the line between imitation and innovation, but Hazanivicius set the bar high from Day One before “The Artist” was even a twinkle in his eye.
“Cairo, Nest of Spies” and its sequel, “Lost In Rio,” are both available on Netflix Instant Watch. For fans of spy films, and even those who have never seen any pre-Craig Bond, these are some of the best, smartest comedies since Mel Brooks and the Zuckers were at their peak.