International man of mystery: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

France builds a better spy spoof

Despite his enormous box office success, Austin Powers brought disgrace on his fellow fake spies and espionage satirists. If you’re still scarred by memories of trying vainly to laugh at Austin Powers in Goldmember, the healing begins in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, starring a French secret agent with a true license to kill.

Before Ian Fleming created 007, the French spy code-named “OSS 117” originated in straight-faced pulp novels. In Cairo, Nest of Spies, Jean Dujardin plays the role as an insufferable blunderer convinced he’s God’s gift to women and France’s most loyal operative. After a black-and-white prologue set in World War II (like a bargain-basement version of Casablanca), OSS 117 journeys to Cairo to investigate the death of his former partner, whom he fondly remembers from homoerotic frolics on the beach. He claims to be “a specialist in the Arabo-Muslim world” but continuously offends his gorgeous secretary Larmina (Bérénice Bejo) with his colossal ignorance of Islam, which he dismisses as a “fad.”

OSS 117 invites comparison with Mike Myers’ Austin Powers franchise not just because they parody the cloak-and-dagger genre from the Technicolor 1960s (although Powers borrowed more from the free love movement of the latter part of the decade, and OSS 117 evokes earlier films such as Sean Connery’s From Russia With Love). Dujardin’s performance taps a similar comedic vein as Myers. He also traffics in oversized, merde-eating grins; booming, inappropriate laughs; and weak double entendres that trail off into awkward silences.

Some of the gags could fit in either film. Director Michel Hazanavicius delightfully captures the genre’s Technicolor trappings, which include accident-prone Nazis, a dress-tearing cat fight between two beauties and an impromptu musical number. During a love scene, the camera pans discretely away from the bed, tracks past a flower vase on the end table, then reveals OSS 117 in a mirror, humping spasmodically, before panning back to the flowers, as if embarrassed.

Where the Austin Powers movies never got much mileage from the swingin’ sexism jokes, OSS 117 cracks the code of the spy spoof by portraying a secret agent as the worst of the clueless, pompous Western world, inadvertently dissing another culture.

Cairo, Nest of Spies looks like a perfect cinematic artifact from half a century ago, but its political satire smells brand new.