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August 1, 2008

Shaken, stirred, whatever


It’s 1955, and France sets a bumbling, gay American spy loose in Egypt. What could possibly go wrong?

A connection between spies and homosexuality swirls through popular culture, now perhaps more than any other time in history.

Scandals involving closeted diplomats being used by their foreign lovers have been around for centuries, if not millennia. But TV, movies and the internet make all of it a lot more accessible.

M. Butterfly, for example, was a hit on the stage and a minor success on the silver screen.

More recently, openly gay actor Rupert Everett spoke of his desire to portray a gay super-spy, and Daniel Craig, the latest to hold the mantle of James Bond, urged producers of the upcoming Quantum of Solace to put in a gay sex scene.

Everett and Craig have both been beaten to the punch by French film OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies.

Secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, better known as OSS 117, was also featured in a series of films from the mid-1950s until 1970. These were B-movie answers to the top-tier Bond epics, based on a series of novels that began four years before Ian Fleming began his 007 books.

Now, writer Jean-François Halin has adapted the Jean Bruce OSS 117 novels into a satire, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, in which pretty much every spy seems to be gay.

From swimsuit-clad days on the beach filled with almost psychotic laughter to enjoying a soon-to-be fatal massage, OSS 117, portrayed by Jean Dujardin, is a little fonder of men than he’s willing to admit.

Dujardin is perfect casting for the role, looking like a Gallic Sean Connery. Interestingly, he also looks a lot like Gene Kelly.

The film begins in black and white, at the end of World War II. American spy Jack Jefferson takes the place of a Nazi officer and infiltrates a flight carrying secret plans for the V2 rocket. He is discovered and shot in the leg but out of the cockpit comes his partner, OSS 117.

Short story long, the Nazi goes out the door sans parachute, the good guys get the rocket plans, insane laughter ensues. Seriously, these guys must have had a blast on the set, because their laughter is one notch away from a Batman villain’s.

Fast forward ten years. OSS 117 recovers an envelope from Princess al Tarouk of Egypt, daughter of the deposed King Farouk. Inside is a photo of Jack Jefferson, looking quite deceased.

OSS 117 is sent to Cairo to investigate Jefferson’s fate and discover what became of a Soviet ship that disappeared in the Suez Canal.

He is joined by Jefferson’s secretary, Larmina, who leads him through the city’s halls of power. He pretends to be Jefferson’s business partner--the late agent’s cover was the head of a poultry cartel.

Secret agents from other countries have similar fronts, all in the agricultural business. It’s a laughable conceit, but it works well.

Germany, the Soviet Union and Belgium are all represented among his fellow agents, and everybody but the Belgian seem to have a desire for the “weenie,” as the subtitles refer to it.

While the film is directly based on characters from the Jean Bruce novels, the overall feel owes much to James Bond, including scenes paralleling 007’s preternatural ability to detect when the woman with whom he is mating is reaching for a knife.

Of course, the gay subtext also gives a clue as to why the spies pay so little attention to the women they court . . .

That Soviet ship, though, was apparently filled with weapons, and there are at least two groups that want it: the princess’ clique of royalists, and the fundamentalist Eagles of Kheops.

Unfortunately, OSS 117 seems to have trouble detecting the end of his nose. He’s basically an idiot, believing in the natural superiority of his country, his age, and his religion, none of which do him much good in a Muslim country.

He also seems to get way to much joy out of flicking the lights on and off in the chicken farm. It’s a running gag, and adds much to the humor of the film.

Unlike the Austin Powers movies, which were very broad, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies gets more of its humor from how campy the original films seem today. While few in the United States have seen those, even the old Bond movies at one level or another suffer from age.

Laser beam about to slice 007 in half, crotch-first? That’s good for a laugh, especially when one sees how antsy Connery looks at the prospect of his wedding tackle being bisected. Roger Moore’s oeuvre as Bond? Enough said.

OSS 117 illustrates how much the mores have changed while poking very gentle fun at the character, who despite being a killer is in some indescribable way a complete naïf.

What does not come out in the film, although it was apparently a major part of the original novels (and probably the earlier adaptations) is that the character is supposed to be American, a Louisianan of French descent who worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In the case of this film, it would have been difficult to explain why he was working for the French government, and would have killed the running gag about his love for French president René Coty.

Director Hazanavicius points out that it’s a film set in 1955 that looks like it was made in 1962, and that follows through every aspect, including the music and the opening and closing credits. The eye for detail on this film is incredible.

Now, even though this movie is a true comedic masterpiece, that doesn’t mean we don’t still want to see Daniel Craig doing full-frontal nudity this November. However, if he doesn’t wind up schtupping the villain into submission, it won’t be as big a loss.



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