Yesterday morning, on a semi-whim — ever since seeing The Artist, I’d been meaning to dive into the earlier work of the director-star combo of Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin, and this recent tip-off from Brad Brevet provided the necessary motivation — I watched Hazanavicius’ two spy-genre spoofs (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio) one after the other. And I must admit, it was the most cinema-related fun I’ve had in quite some time.
The concepts behind both films are obviously thin. Essentially, they’re both parodies stretched to feature-length dynamics, and, because of that inherently slight nature, it would’ve been easy for the films to fall apart in the hands of a less competent filmmaker. But Hazanavicius is a real craftsman. While he hasn’t yet developed a profound sense of storytelling — he co-wrote both of these intentionally feeble works, and, yes, I’d argue that The Artist is no significant step forward in terms of creating three-dimensional, fully-realized character portraits — he has an undeniable control behind the camera that seeps itself into every aspect of his films.
The cinematography (handled by Guillaume Schiffman in both films) and the editing (a likewise dual-effort from Reynald Bertrand), not to mention the sound work, the costumes, and the set design, are all deliberately dingy in their verisimilitude, and that’s precisely the point. That they so distinctly recall the earlier cinematic worlds of James Bond (the first film takes place in 1955, the second in 1967), both in the attention to detail and in the choices of exaggeration, is a reflection of the technical expertise on display here.
The even more important glue to these films, however, is star Jean Dujardin. His mastery of physical comedy, prevalent in every bodily and facial gesture, is key to the films’ success, and is probably one of the main reasons why Hazanavicius needed to do no further digging in order to find the crux of his foray into silent film. Dujardin captures the bonkers nature of his character — officially referred to as OSS 117, with the ludicrous real name of Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath — to a tee, while simultaneously spewing notes of ignorant innocence, a quality which makes the character all the more humorously watchable.
Dujardin’s romantic co-stars are, in both films, wonderfully capable, too. In Cairo, Nest of Spies, the actress is none other than Bérénice Bejo, Dujardin’s gorgeous sparring partner from The Artist. Simply put, the two of them just make a warm and inviting screen couple, both in their complimentary physical characteristics and their similarly spot-on comedic intuitions. Louise Monot, meanwhile, the love target of the second film, Lost in Rio, manages to bring her own unique perspective to the role. Her forthright manner delightfully challenges OSS 117, who’s an outright racist and misogynist, despite being a womanizer and, potentially and strangely, bisexual. He’s a nut.
There’s nothing in either of these films that’s played for any desired result other than giddy parody, and that’s exactly why they’re so enjoyable. This is slight, digestible entertainment, but also, in an uncanny way, quite durable. These are films I can easily imagine myself revisiting at any point in time and being just as delighted as I was during this first go-around. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Lost in Rio ends on one of the funniest closing scenes I’ve seen since the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading.
Both films, by the way, are available to watch instantly on Netflix.