Reviewer: Jonathan Poritsky
Rating (out of 5): ***½
Predating Ian Fleming’s James Bond, OSS 117 is the call number for Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, a secret agent extraordinaire. Creator Jean Bruce wrote over ninety books for the character in his lifetime, and de La Bath made his way into eight films from 1956 to 1971. He never reached the international popularity of his doppelgänger in her majesty’s secret service, but his legacy is now cemented, if lampooned, in the latest film from Michel Hazanavicius, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, the second in a series of parodies.
The film opens, like any great spy film, with a dance and an ambush. Jean Dujardin, playing the title role, walks into a room full of dancing women before being shot at by well-dressed henchman. If you’re anything like me, you will probably check the box for a date or start looking it up online: could this film really be from 2009? The 1960s look and feel is impeccable. From the electric bubblegum tunes of Ludovic Bource to the steady photography of Guillaume Schiffman, the art direction of Maamar Ech-Cheikh and the hair styles of Frédérique Arguello, this film feels as if it is archival, a degraded relic of cinema that once was. Mind you, I don’t mean it has scratches and pops, the effect is wholly chemical, emotional; think more Death Proof than Planet Terror.
OSS 117 is called to Brazil, where he is to deliver a suitcase full of cash to a former Nazi, Von Himmel (Rüdiger Vogler), who possesses microfilm evidence of French collaborators. En route, he is commissioned by a sexy Israeli Mossad agent, Dolorès Koulechov (Louise Monot), to help arrest Von Himmel to be tried in Israel a la Eichmann. The film may be shlocky at points, with silly accents and fake wigs providing some big laughs, but Hazanavicius takes the material seriously. After all, the premise of a Frenchman helping a Jew save a Nazi isn’t hilarious without a little context, a little “where were you during the war” profundity. The problems described, the post-war mess that was Europe, are all very real, even if presented in a light manner, while Austin Powers, for example, never rises above its gags to say much of anything.
The spy spoof is well trodden ground, most popularly with Mike Meyers and Jay Roach’s aforementioned Austin Powers cycle. Woody Allen’s first film, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, literally rips apart the genre by cutting together and dubbing two Japanese secret agent thrillers to hilarious effect. Perhaps the closest kin of this new crop of OSS 117 films is the 1966 Bond send-up, Casino Royale, a collaborative film featuring multiple directors and multiple James Bonds that was pretty universally panned. Hazanavicius’s OSS 117 isn’t nearly as shticky as the many Bonds of Casino Royale, but it certainly takes the concept to new meta heights. By using the same character, the filmmaker is perhaps saying more about us in the 21st century than Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath ever did about his own era. Our view of history is not finite, and if now we like to think that the fever pitch of the cold war was a sexy romp, then perhaps we should take a moment to wonder why. If in forty years someone sits down to make a film evocative of our current espionage cinema, would it look half as fun? I can promise you this: no spoof out now offers half as much as OSS 117: Lost in Rio.
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