On Oscar night, Feb. 26, something unprecedented in movie history is likely to happen: the Best Picture award could go to a movie whose makers were unknown to virtually every member of the Motion Picture Academy. The Artist, a Gallic valentine to the glamour and glory of Hollywood in the 1920s and ’30s — but virtually wordless, and in black-and-white — would be the first out-of-nowhere Oscar champ. The Best Picture prize would also be a fitting reward for a French writer-director who has devoted his career to lovingly twisting the conventions of English-language movies.
Michel Hazanavicius, the 44-year-old filmmaker born in Paris to a Lithuanian Jewish family, is new to Hollywood, but Hollywood is an old friend to him. Three of his four previous features are canny pastiches of American-style thrillers — if, that is, you grant honorary U.S. citizenship to the earliest James Bond films and their myriad imitations, since Hazanavicius directed two wicked Gallic contortions of the 007 ethos, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 177: Lost In Rio, both starring The Artist’s Jean Dujardin (and both available on DVD from Music Box Films).
(MORE: See Mary Corliss’s review of The Artist)
An impish satirist in the Mad comic-book tradition, he had only to add heart to the recipe to produce The Artist. Rarely has a filmmaker, American or otherwise, prepared himself so assiduously to create a tribute to Hollywood in its first golden age. Since the OSS 117 movies received only furtive release in the U.S., and Hazanavicius’ first film effort, La classe américaine, was not released at all, a look at these three works can provide clues to the director’s pastiche style and how it grew.
LA CLASSE AMĒRICAINE
In 1993 Hazanavicius was working at Canal Plus, the giant pay-cable channel that owned most of the post-1948 Warner Bros. film library. With co-director Dominique Mézerette, he dove into this trove and created La classe américaine, a 72-min.action comedy comprising Warners clips from the 1950s through the ’70s.
If the notion makes you think of Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, you’re halfway there. Martin and director Carl Reiner had buttressed their film-noir burlesque with segments from black-and-white crime dramas, which were woven into new scenes with the star and other actors. Hazanavicius and Mézerette one-upped Dead Men by relying only on the found footage from the Warners vault. Actually. La classe américaine is closer to the 1936 avant-garde film Rose Hobart, in which artist Joseph Cornell stripped the 75-min. 1931 jungle epic East of Borneo down to 19 minutes, mostly of dreamy closeups of its leading lady, and in the process devised a meditation on any moviegoer’s obsession with star quality — even of an actress who was never remotely a Hollywood star.
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La classe américaine has nothing but stars. Prefaced by a misspelled, crudely printed title card that translates as “Attention, This flim is not a flim about bicycle-ridign, Thank you for your understanding,” it begins in the South Pacific, where ship’s captain John Wayne, from The Sea Chase, exchanges belligerent words (in French) with buccaneer Burt Lancaster from The Crimson Pirate. Soon Wayne, whom the film renames George Abitbol (Dujardin’s character in The Artist is also called George) and describes as “the classiest American,” is dead. Three reporters — Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, from All the President’s Men, and Paul Newman, in clips from Harper and The Drowning Pool — are assigned to investigate Abitbol’s demise and, Citizen Kane-style, to discover the meaning of his final words: “Ah, monde de merde!“
The movie, which can be seen in its entirety on Google Video, uses a split screen to show Newman reading a phone number (of about 27 digits) to Hoffman and then Redford calling James Stewart in The FBI Story. Reaction shots from different movies put Wayne in the passenger seat of a car, pouring his heart out to Newman in the driver’s seat just before a tremendous explosion. Henry Fonda, bearded or clean-shaven, is a frequent visitor, as are Steve McQueen (Bullitt), Clark Gable (Band of Angels), Elvis Presley (Charro!) and hundreds of extras from The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Star actresses get short or no shrift; the on-screen evidence suggests that the Warners lot from the Eisenhower through the Nixon era was totally a man’s world.
The French audience got more out of La classe américaine, not just from the pun-strewn script but from the directors’ hiring of the American stars’ usual French dubbers to mouth the parody dialogue. Eventually running out of steam and gags, even in its brief running time, the flim reveals Hazanavicius’ smarty-pants impulse for Hollywoodophilia. The talent he displayed in The Artist would be a long time coming.
OSS 117: CAIRO, NEXT OF SPIES
More than a decade (and a non-pastiche comedy, the 1999 Mes amis, starring his brother Serge) elapsed before his biggest French hit, the 2006 OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Officially, the movie was a decades-tardy spinoff of seven international adventure films limning the exploits of French secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, the creation of novelist Jean Bruce. The film series began with the 1957 OSS 117 Is Not Dead, starring Ivan Desny and directed by Jean Sacha; but it got its strong second wind with the success of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, in 1962. As the 007 craze spread, spy spoofs proliferated in Hollywood and abroad. Six OSS 117 films appeared from 1963 to 1970 — OSS in Chains, Panic in Bangkok, Mission for a Killer, Terror in Tokyo, Double Agent and OSS 117 on Vacation — four of them directed by comedy specialist André Hunebelle and featuring the American and European B-listers Kerwin Matthews, Frederick Stafford, John Gavin and Luc Merenda in the role of Hubert (none more than twice).
Bruce’s Bonisseur de la Bath might be thought a knockoff of Ian Fleming’s Bond, but it could be the other way around — though both novelists were responding to political turmoil in their own countries. Bruce began his series of some 90 books in 1949, when France still occupied Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria and was waging a last stand in Indochina. Fleming inaugurated his series in 1953, when Britain had shriveled as an imperial power and the acrid embarrassment of the Burgess-MacLean-Philby spy scandal was still fresh in the national nostrils. As these empires were trembling or crumbling, 007 and 117 rose as international superheroes — fantasy and nostalgia in similarly suave packages. “Some people have adventures,” Hubert says in OSS 117: Lost in Rio. “I am an adventure.”
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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?”
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.
OSS 117: LOST IN RIO
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?”
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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?