The OSS 117 Films: Michel Hazanavicius’ Warmup for The Artist

The French director of The Artist may be an unknown to American audiences. but he's been paying tribute to Hollywood-style movies for his entire career

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Music Box Films / Everett

Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin in a scene from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.

Screenwriter Jean-François Halin thought that a figure of such chauvinist grandiosity was ripe for parody. Halin had already spoofed genre films in the 1999 Quasimodo d’El Paris, which implanted Victor Hugo’s Hunchback into a serial-killer thriller, and Les aventures de Philibert, Capitaine puceau, a swashbuckler with a gay hero. In Cairo, Nest of Spies, Halin and Hazanavicius retained Hubert’s secret-agent mastery — his fighting skills and love of the ladies — but foregrounded his oafishness. As one character says of 117: “He’s just a little spy with a big ego.”

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In Dujardin, who rose from cabaret comedy to star on TV and in the movies, they found Hubert’s perfect (which is to say perfectly silly) embodiment: a handsome fellow with a strong physical resemblance to Sean Connery, but also with the natural comic’s gift — as Cary Grant and George Clooney have shown in certain roles — for mocking his good looks. As Dujardin has said of OSS 117: “It’s funny to have a character so skilled and clever, but also so dumb.” Dujardin’s Hubert is both the embodiment and the deconstruction of the movie spy. Mixing French and English, the actor calls Nest of Spies “a comedy with a little Sean and a lot of conneries.” As in bullsh-t.

In the obligatory precredit sequence it’s 1944, and Hubert is trapped on a small plane with a sneering German officer. Helped by his co-spy Jack Jefferson (Philippe Lefebrve), with whom he has an agonizingly playful homoerotic friendship, Hubert saves some valuable papers, ejects the nasty Nazi and flies to safety. Flash forward to 1955, when Hubert’s boss tells him that Jack has died and he must replace him on a delicate mission in Egypt. “Establish peace,” the chief says. “Make the Middle East safe.” Hubert cheerfully replies, “No problem.” He’s off to Cairo to do battle with Egyptian insurrectionists, left-over Nazis, brutal Russians and his own quaint notions of what a spy should be.

For someone with globetrotting credentials, Hubert is numbingly insensitive to other cultures and customs. Meeting the Egyptian agent Larmina El Akmar Betouche (Bérénice Bejo, the Argentine-born actress who is Dujardin’s costar in The Artist and Hazanavicius’ wife), he offers her a drink, which she declines on religious grounds. Hubert is shocked: “What stupid religion would forbid alcohol?” “The Muslim religion,” Larmina replies, “practiced by 90% of our people.” Awakened at five one morning by a muezzin’s call to prayer, Hubert thinks it’s an early, rowdy partygoer and marches up the minaret to silence him. His only Arabic words are the numbers one through five, and when he’s caught by rebels and whipped, he counts the lashes in Arabic, thinking they’ll stop at five. But they keep going. He tentatively murmurs, “Six?”

(SEE: Jean Dujardin shows off his best impressions)

Any spy must be adept at making war and making love; Hubert is aces at both. In the middle of a martial-arts confrontation with one of the man thugs who attack him, he pauses to tell the camera, “I love to fight.” His film-long flirtation with Larmina is compromised when he learns she is allied with the rebels; he righteously tells her, “To think I almost let you make love to me.” When Larmina gets into a climactic, literally bodice-ripping girlfight with King Farouk’s daughter (Aura Atika) — every Bond film or parody needs two sexy women, one good, one evil — Hubert first implores them to stop, then just watches appreciatively.

In sum, he’s an idiot with a few endearing quirks. His cover business in Cairo is a poultry plant, and when he learns that the clucking chickens need the lights on to produce eggs, he gets childishly glee from flicking the lights off (silence) and on (clucking). In the middle of the film he asks to be dropped off at the plant because “I have some work to do.” We’re outside while he goes in. After a few seconds: Cluck. Silence. Cluck. Silence. Cluck.

As amusing as Nest of Spies‘ parody of spy-movie tropes is, its true wit is in the careful recreation of the mid-century filmmaking style. “To recreate the 1950s, we needed to do everything the way it used to be done,” Hazanavicius says on the DVD’s making-of featurette. “We really tried to work the way they did in the 1950s, with the lights, the shots, even the acting.” The male actors are constantly adjusting their ties; Dujardin often will lean on a car hood or, while talking, places one leg on a chair — a casual gesture then that looks suitably ridiculous now.

“I asked myself, how did they shoot back then?” says Guillaume Schiffman, the director of photography on Hazanavicius’ OSS 117 films. “And how would it look if I tried to do the same?” The movie is a visual symphony of old-fashioned dolly shots and zoom-ins; the actors “drive” in front of splendidly fake rear projections; Schiffman used older lenses for a softer look, with a palette of warm browns and silvery grays. These tactics and techniques would serve him and Hazanavicius well when they studied Hollywood’s silent and early sound films before making The Artist.


Nest of Spies earned a robust $23 million in France (the rough equivalent of $125 million in the U.S., considering the relatively sizes of the populations). So the movie’s team — Hazanavicius, Halin, Schiffman and Dujardin, minus Bejo — reunited for the 2009 sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio. The year is 1967, in the full fury of Bondmania, not to mention world revolution, Vietnam carnage and the first Egypt-Israel war. In a Gstaad chalet, Hubert amuses a bevy of Chinese lovelies with magic tricks. But their appreciative ohhhs turn to screams when henchman of the Triad boss Mr. Lee burst in, spraying the room with bullets. Hubert responds in kind, killing the bad guys (and most of the women), and warns the one survivor, “Beware of Mr. Lee, and of Chinamen in general. They’re dirty yellows.”

Sent to Rio to locate Von Zimmel (Rüdiger Vogler), a high-ranking Nazi disguised as “a South American wrestling impresario,” Hubert hooks up with CIA operative Bill Trumendous (Ken Samuels), who has a vocabulary of bad French and obscene English, to which Hubert responds with his usual uncomprehending manly laughter. The bad girl this time is Carlotta (Reem Kherici), who quickly leads Hubert into a bedroom tryst before she sneaks out the bathroom window, while he poses on the bed with his most dapper smile, in case she might return.

(MORE: Read what Jean Dujardin says of OSS 117)

The good girl is Dolores Kulichev (Louise Monot), a blond, miniskirted colonel in the Israeli Army. She has quite some trouble convincing Hubert that a woman can be a tough fighter (he keeps thinking she’s some man’s secretary) and even more in comprehending 117’s skewed view of world politics. He thinks that in Israel women must wear veils, and when she tells him he’s confusing Jews and Moslems, he snaps, “Don’t nitpick.” Hubert defines a dictatorship as a country of “Communists. They’re cold, with gray hats and boots and zippers.” She asks, “What do you call a country with a military leader, secret police, one TV station and censorship?” And he responds proudly, “I call that France, Miss. France under General De Gaulle.”

When the French and Israeli spies split up to track down the Nazis, Hubert stops at the German Embassy to ask for a list of Nazis residing in Brazil. “A club? A Nazi Guild, perhaps?” Hubert is even stupider this time, if that’s possible. The movie isn’t quite so smart either: the tone is coarser, and there’s a long arid stretch when Hubert and Dolores get lost in the jungle.

Things perk up when they find the Nazi hideout, where a Gauleiter sings “The Girl from Ipanema” in a cartoon German accent. Von Zimmel, bending slightly to the groovy Zeitgeist, proclaims a Fifth Reich, “a Reich of Love,” and begs Dolores and Hubert for mercy: “A Nazi, does he not have eyes? If you prick us, do we not bleed?” But Von Zimmel is up to old Nazi chicanery; he had earlier injected a top-secret microfilm into Hubert’s body (Denzel Washington uses the same trick on himself in Safe House) and has lured him to Rio to retrieve it and, maniacal laugh, rule the world.

Cue the big fight between our hero and the villain and his minions, with Dolores rooting him on from the sidelines, shouting, “Be more aggressive!” After an obligatory battle on one of the arms of the Christ the Redeemer statue — and another tussle above a waterfall, probably just to reference the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls — Hubert hands Von Zimmel over to Dolores. “I’m proud to help an Israeli save a Nazi,” he says, suddenly waxing sentimental with peace, love and understanding. “I see it as a sign. Why not hope for reconciliation between Jews and Nazis?”

(MORE: See The Artist atop TIME’s Top 10 Movies of 2011)

Taking his cue this time from Mod-era filmmaking, Hazanavicius often breaks the frame into split screens: 66 images of Dolores’ legs when she first shows up, and another orgy of images when Hubert, on the Rio beach with a group of hippies, innocently takes an LSD pill and engages in communal, bisexual lovemaking. Schiffman goes zoom-crazy this time, fills the ’60s go-go palette with gaudy primary colors photographed through gels.

Composer Ludovic Bourse, another regular Hazanavicius colleague, samples snatches of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo (as he would, extensively in The Artist) and North by Northwest. This time there’s a reason for the homage: Hubert is nursing a case of acrophobia — the scar from an earlier stint as a trapeze artist, when he lost the grip of his partner who plunged to his death (shades of the 1955 movie Trapeze) — and his trip to the top of the statue cues that queasy old feeling.

As annoying as Hubert can be, Dujardin affords him some of the sweet sympathy he brings to the role of George Valentin in The Artist. When an exasperated Dolores tells Hubert, “You’re old, pretentious, a misogynist, full of yourself, vain, borderline racist, tacky dresser, childish, not funny,” Hubert looks affronted. “Tacky dresser?” he asks incredulously. He’s also cute when, during one chase scene, he sticks his head out the car window like a dog and gaily opens his mouth to catch the breeze. And when invited to a costume party, he shows up in an elaborate Errol-Flynn-as-Robin-Hood costume. “How did you do that?” asks Dolores, and he says modestly, “I sew.”

In the two OSS 117 films, Hazanavicius wove spy clichés into bright parodic garments. But for all their genial or wicked wit, they hardly prepared moviegoers for the brilliantly sustained balance of comedy and heartache, satire and sentiment, in The Artist. If he can make such an Olympic-high-jump leap with one film, what can we expect of his future work? And which decade of moviemaking will he plunder and honor next?

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