Following the massive success of "Quantum of Solace" the 22nd adventure of Britain's favourite spy, it is now the turn of France's national equivalent, OSS 117, to get in on some of the action with the latest of the "Rio ne repond plus" series.
Secret agents have never known such popularity, James Bond no longer stands alone, the past few years have seen the arrival of quite a few new kids on the block: Jason Bourne, Largo Winch, and of course the delightful Mr and Mrs Smith. Mostly, these secret agents have popped out of detective fiction and comics, and OSS 117 has not escaped this cinematographic transformation. Gallic rip-off of Ian Fleming's Bond? No such thing! The comical character of Hubert Bonnisseur de la Bath is first created in 1949 by Jean Bruce: four years earlier than our dashing English spy…
The Myth of the Secret Agent
The secret agent, as we now know him, is a stereotype that has been built up on the big screen and literature since the Cold War, when the two great powers were engaged in a constant fight in the shadows.
The public has always been fascinated by the adventures of these spies and it is obvious, with the release of the latest OSS 117, that this fascination is not dying out. The French agent, with his gelled back hair, macho attitude and clumsy ways fits perfectly into the pantheon of gentlemen adventurers: a strong virile hero who makes women fantasise and men dream through his adventures.
Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (who shall henceforth be referred to as Hubert, to spare you the tedious length of his name), possesses the entire range required of a secret agent… starting with his car. What would the manly spy be without his faithful motor? As Austin Martin DB5 is to James Bond, sky blue Facel Vega is to Hubert. Next, the Watch: essential both as an elegant accessory and often handy gadget. Bond may have his Omega or Rolex, but Hubert's Tissot is not a bad substitute.
Of course, sophistication is innate in all secret agents. Be it whilst cascading down perilous cliffs, beating enemies to a pulp or just generally saving the world, an agent is never without his perfectly cut suits and well fitted clothes: image is, after all, key. Michel Hazanavicius, the director, confesses to being inspired by Lew Harper's wardrobe, the detective so wonderfully interpreted by Paul Newman: surely not a bad benchmark. Cinematographic references are numerous, such as the Italian flourish "a la Aldo Maccione" with which Jean Dujardin ( the actor who plays Hubert) drops his clothes to reveal his speedos under the transfixed gaze of adoring girls.
Of course, with the sophisticated wardrobe comes the unparalleled sex-appeal of the secret agent, which no woman can resist. A gaggle of admiring girls is a prerequisite of all spies as a testimony to their virility. Be it at the beginning, middle or end of the film, there is always time for a cosy "harem" scene.
Jean Dujardin in "Rio ne répond plus"
George Lazenby in "Au service secret de Sa Majesté"
And so we see our hero jump from bed to bed, engaging in languorous love scenes, without ever even creasing his shirt. None of this, of course, is of any surprise to us: we expect nothing less of our man, this exceptional being who is both unattainable and rooted in society. But, though he falls in love (or lust) at the drop of a pin, Hubert is never, like his colleague Bond, one to commit.
Jean Dujardin and Louise Monot
"Il m'est impossible de m'engager avec une femme. Mes histoires d'amour ne s'écrivent pas dans le temps, ce sont des histoires courtes, compactes, passionnelles. D'aucuns ont des aventure. Je suis une aventure !" ( Rio ne répond plus)
Can the Secret Agent make us laugh?
Not unlike Austin Powers, the comical British agent, Hubert is not one to take himself too seriously and is also able to shake it on the dance floor with the same hilarious grace. He is an anti-hero of sorts, a parody of the traditional espionage movie.
When he decided to resurrect secret agent Hubert, one of Michel Hazanavicius' main aims was to keep intact the stereotype of the arrogant Frenchman, misogynistic, a chauvinist, filled to the brim with racial, colonial and cultural prejudices.
In "Cairo, the spy den", the story unfolds in Egypt and it is the perfect opportunity for the director to show of the character in all his ignorant, uncultured glory, the ease with which he infuriates the locals with his inappropriate comments.
The character is so grotesque and exaggerated it is impossible not to laugh at his stupidity. However, in highlighting OSS racist tendencies, Hazanavicius touches a sensitive spot. Critics are, unfortunately, not always kind to those who treat the subject of racism with humour. He chooses not to sidestep the issue, and navigates the dangerous terrain by setting the story in the midst of a past era. As such, when we laugh we can do so guiltlessly for it is not the Arabs, Jews or Chinese that we are laughing at, but the outdated attitude of the old-school Frenchman.
Against "Soft Totalitarianism": OSS 177 vs James Bond.
Alcohol, sex, haschisch and deranged dance moves, OSS 177 stands out against the increasingly politically correct film-industry. Gone are the days when James Bond would indulge in copious amounts of quality alcohol, food, women, nowadays all the nasty habits given to him by Ian Fleming have been erased by the PC brigade. Australian scientists have accusingly pointed out his irresponsible ways: top of the list is the lack of protection in his numerous sexual escapades. Might this have something to do with why our normally sexually ravenous Bond does not touch a single hair of Olga Kurylenkode's head in the latest "Quantum of Solace".Amongst other habits criticised is his pronounced taste for tobacco (60 Morlands a day in the novels!). James stubbed out his fag-end in 1989 and since then has contented himself with passing comments on other people's smoking habit. In "Tomorrow never dies", Pierce Brosnan even goes as far as telling a beautiful Russian girl that it is a dirty habit (surely the old bond would have bedded her instead!)
"Le Caire nid d espions" :
0SS 117: "Je prendrai une Suze. Que prendrez-vous?"
Larmina:"Pas d'alcool, ma religion me l'interdit"
0SS 117: "Mai quelle religion pourrait refuser un tel privilège?"
Larmina:"La religion musulmane, pratiquée par 90 pour cent des habitants de ce pays".
0SS: "Ah, d'accord..."
Whilst Daniel Craig sells James Bond's soul to the Coca-Cola Group for a Zero Calory ad, Hubert gets hammered with alcoholic drinks which makes him even more of an idiot.
Hubert Bonnisseur de la Bath is without doubt a secret agent but he is first and foremost, a rather grotesque character who never fails to make you laugh. If he does not chock the audience it is because he is seen as a typical French xenophobe full of prejudices. In the end he is the one people make fun of and it is for this reason that he is so successful. The politically un-PC is the style that the director of OSS has opted for...thank god it works!