Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath — a fictional super spy created by French writer Jean Bruce — worked for American agencies like the OSS, CIA, and NSC. Because with that name, he is clearly a red-blooded American man. He also goes by numerical code of “OSS 117”. Double-One Seven, if you will. You’re thinking, “This is an obvious parody of James Bond.” Au contraire, mes amis! OSS 117 predates 007 by four years. Bruce was incredibly prolific, too, having written 91 novels. He probably would have written more if he hadn’t been killed in a tragic car crash. That said, his wife Josette Bruce continued writing OSS 117 novels, with 143 books under her name.
OSS 117 also beat James Bond to the silver screen as well. The first movie featuring his adventures, OSS 117 Is Not Dead, hit the screen in 1957. Dr. No wouldn’t debut for another five years. This is all to say that OSS 117 is not a rip-off. He’s not a parody. He’s the for-real, legit original creation.
So it is with odd irony that the two latest OSS 117 movies — Cairo, Nest of Spies and Lost In Rio — are largely James Bond parodies. Specifically the Sean Connery James Bond movies. The first movie was a huge hit, with the second movie a little less so. Lost In Rio was the one I had available, so.
This time around, Hubert (played by Jean Dujardin) works for a French agency — the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (or the SDECE). We are sadly robbed of the humor of having a man with the name “Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath”. I guess, as a consolation prize, Hubert is instead joined by Bill Tremendous (Ken Samuels), a Felix Leiter type character who often slips into English and then only speaks in expletives.
Hubert’s personality can be described as a bigoted Inspector Clouseau. He has all of Bond’s faults, with the dial tweaked slightly more toward “outrageous.” When a Chinese associate talks of the Communists as being “red,” Hubert immediately thinks race and corrects her with “yellow.” He is teamed up with Dolores (Louise Monot), and he cannot help but ask her to cook and clean and fetch coffee. Meanwhile, he’s dangerously clueless. It seems like everyone in the world can see through his falsified identity and correctly peg him as OSS 117.
His cluelessness may be his greatest asset, though. He may be racist and misogynist… be he also is a huge dope who doesn’t know any better. While I can’t say he ever really learns any lesson at the end, he at least tries. This puts him on a morally higher ground that his enemies, who are quite literally the Nazis.
That, though, is a bit of director Michel Hazanavicius pointing inward. Dolores asks Hubert, “What do you call a country with a military leader controlling everything, a secret police, a single TV channel with every information controlled by the state?”
“I call that ‘France’, Miss,” Hubert replies with patriotic pride. “General De Gaulle’s France.”
The SDECE sends Hubert to France to retrieve a list of French Nazi sympathizers from their blackmailer, a Professor Von Zimmel. There, he runs into Dolores and her fellow Mossad agents, who stroke his ego to ensure his cooperation. They need to track down Von Zimmel so he can answer for his war crimes. Dolores is a modern woman, feeling at ease with hippies and the free love movement, while Hubert can only look on in disgust.
OSS 117 does learn to loosen up a little, though. LSD and an orgy can do that to you.
The movie faithfully recreates the look and feel of a 60’s spy movie. Driving scenes are shot with a rear projection. The outfits are bright and mod. The screen splits into tidy squares. There’s one shot where we get several shots of people on phones, and more squares are added on screen as new callers are added. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think they did the same gag in fellow spy spoof series, Austin Powers.) It’s easy to lose yourself in the setting, which tricks you into thinking that this might be a previously unseen 1960’s French spy spoof from the 1960’s. Weirder things have happened. I mean, 1967’s Casino Royale happened. When David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, and Woody Allen have all been in a movie where they all played James Bond, all bets are off.
Anyway, Dolores cannot stand Hubert and tells him off at every opportunity. While he definitely deserves it, it can at times be a little cruel. Like I said, the Mossad is purposefully stroking his ego to get what they want. And not just them… so is everyone else. The SDECE, the Nazis, the CIA. Everyone is duping Hubert because they know he’s a stupid moron who has no self-awareness. I know this is a commentary on male privilege, but I honestly did feel bad for Hubert.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Dolores being a wet blanket is a joke in and of itself. She goes from being utterly disgusted by Hubert’s misogyny to being romantically attracted to him in zero seconds flat… and we get no real reason for her to do so. A commentary on how women in James Bond mostly have no reason themselves to be enamored by that super spy? Did it really on take a tussle in the hay for Pussy Galore to go from “evil” to “good”? Appealed to her maternal instincts, my ass!
So here’s the money question: is this movie funny? For me, yes. The movie does the smart thing by giving Hubert a personality beyond just being a bigot. Nor do they play him as a sympathetic fish-out-of-water, like Austin Powers does. Instead, they give him a grab bag of strangeness. He’s given the tragic story of … a circus acrobat who failed one of his stunts which resulted in the death of his partner and a fear of heights. We see him taking photos everywhere, mostly of pretty women… but we discover he’s an awful photographer and his photos are blurry, tilted, or bad close-ups.
Then, for no reason it seems, we learned he’s a fantastic tailor. He wants to go incognito at a costume party, so he stitches up an accurate rendition of Erroy Flynn’s get-up from The Adventures of Robin Hood. For a guy who’s a total buffoon as a spy, he does have talents that come out of nowhere. (Circus tumbling, it turns out, is quite effective when battling Nazi villains.)
It also helps being a movie buff. Not just being a fan of the James Bond series or spy movies in general. My biggest laugh came from the Alfred Hitchcock references that seemed way too highbrow for this movie.
Lost In Rio is the last of the parody OSS 117 movies, and the director has indicated that he’s not doing a third. Just as well, I suppose, since parody spy movies do tend to wear out their welcome after you’ve run through all the obvious jokes. I suppose we should be happy that they stopped before they introduced a Dutch swinger who collects skin flakes.