Sunday, 22 January 2017

To Cairo with Laughs: A Review of 'OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies' (2006 Film)

You hear ‘parody of 60s spy films’, you think ‘Austin Powers’. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies proves the French do it better. While still camp and parodic, OSS 117 has more restraint the Anglophone alternative. As fits a parody based on a genuine exemplar of the spygenre, it feels like 21st-century comedians uncovered a mid-20th-century non-comedic script treatment. They mock the clichés and prejudices of an old form, but still weave a decent narrative around the old form  

French spy Jack Jefferson is KIA in 1950s Cairo. What does this have to do with a Soviet arms shipment? And how are the Eagle of Koep, an Islamic extremist group, involved. The French secret service sends OSS 117 to investigate, their Middle-East specialist. He doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘fear’. Or any words of Arabic. Or even the word ‘Arabic’ – But has cultural ignorance ever stopped the West? With Jefferson’s former assistant, the beautiful Larmina El Akmar Betouche, and a warehouse of chickens, OSS 117 must get the truth.

OSS 117 manages that most tricky kind of spoof, one mocking its targeted genre, while remaining a decent example of that genre. Too much focus on mocking, the film risks becoming a sequence of sketches, sacrificing plot for potshots. If you adhere too strictly to the genre you’re mocking, then you’re not mocking it, you’re just it. OSS 117 plays the classic spy formula with tongue in cheek, but gags never derail the narrative or lead to out of character moments. If the director restrained the camp, deadpanned a few exchanges, and changed a few lines, this could have been a straight pastiche of mid-century spy films.

Part of the film’s subtlety is how it primes you to not take its plot too seriously. Every car ride uses a green screen, and every fight has a kitschy soundtrack. The film wants you to remember it’s not real. The film conditions us to its skewed reality. Narrative excesses do not break the willing suspension of disbelief, because the artificiality of the production has set a baseline of unreality.

I must resist just recounting the films jokes. Needless to say, it has good ones, but it does not settle for isolated gags. It tosses off so many jokes, you don’t notice which are Chekov’s guns. When OSS 117 wrestles the microphone away from the muezzin calling morning prayers, you laugh at his ignorance. You do not consider the Islamic extremists, the Eagle of Koep, will judge this the infidels’ last straw.

OSS 117’s cultural ignorance gives this silly comedy some thematic weight. The parody targets more than the story-telling tropes of old spy films, but their underlying ideology as well. A lot of those films centred on a Westerner going to foreign lands, which he and/or the writer don’t understand. OSS 117’s makes this ignorance explicit. Our hero tries paying lower-class Egyptians with photos of French President René Coty, as if they were talismans. He scoffs when his partner tells him millions speak Arabic. He tells her that Islam’s prohibition against alcohol mean the religion won’t last long. He cannot comprehend Egypt had worthwhile culture prior to and outside of Western rule. The film extends this beyond a criticism of spy movie heroes to a criticism of European foreign policy. The French secret service send OSS 117 to Egypt because he is an ‘Arabo-Muslim specialist’. He does not even understand the word ‘Arabo’. His conduct during the mission does not dissuade their high opinion of him, but enhances it. The film portrays the French government as not caring and/or not knowing any better.

OSS117 has just enough camp and just enough restraint to skewer old spy films, while being a decent one. Its jokes not only land, but further plot threads. And it elevates itself by mocking the politics of old spy films, not just their tropes.        

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