MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2019, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.
Parodies of the James Bond spy thriller formula are nothing new. The likes of Austin Powers and Johnny English have taken the trappings of spy films and accentuated them to farce with slapstick shenanigans and wry observations about the tropes that underpin espionage stories, but those films are probably still best considered celebratory of spy fiction rather than actively critical of it. The French spy comedy OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is something of a different breed, though. On its face, it’s a farce much like its brethren, with the only thing separating it being a thin pretense of being based on the series of OSS 117 novels. But Cairo, Nest of Spies has a lot more on its mind than just making fun of the spy genre: it wants to deconstruct it and make us question our enjoyment of the spy hero.
A cold open finds us in 1945, as spy duo Jack Jefferson (Philippe Lefebvre) and Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Jean Dujardin) foil a Nazi plan and make away with some blueprints. Cut to ten years later, and Hubert is the secret agent OSS 117, working on behalf of the French government to thwart acts of terror and espionage around the world. However, it seems his old friend Jack, also an OSS agent, has gone missing in Cairo, so Hubert makes it his mission to go to Egypt to investigate and find his missing friend while diving deep into the plot that swallowed Jack whole.
Cairo, Nest of Spies is not heavy on physical comedy, but the hilarity crosses the language barrier as it sets in just how much of an ignorant buffoon Hubert really is. He parrots other people’s deductions and stumbles into compromising situations from which he learns nothing, the plot moves on either in spite of his character agency or because of his unfamiliarity with Egyptian culture, and the whole business of being a spy is demonstrated as childish fumbling without direction or purpose until the plot simply resolves itself. We see this play out in absurdist trappings of the genre, like a princess (Aure Atika) who supposedly acts as Hubert’s nemesis but can’t resist giving him information in exchange for sex. A man continually follows Hubert, calling by payphone to a mysterious man with Hubert’s location, but the mysterious man insists that the annoying tail stop calling him. A code phrase is used to signal allegiance, but even when an obvious ally screws it up, Hubert reacts violently in a crowded high society function. These are great gags that are played just straight enough for the parody to be cutting.
What’s even sharper, though, is Cairo, Nest of Spies’ distaste for imperialism, racism, and sexism as personified by its archetypal lead. More than just an idiot, Hubert is shown to be ignorant of history, dismissive of the Muslim religion, condescending toward his female liaison (Bérénice Bejo), and entirely presumptive about French cultural superiority even when surrounded by evidence of Arabic prestige that stretches back thousands of years. This Western arrogance and foolishness extends to the other white members of the cast, but Hubert is the focal point, and if you’re going into this comedy looking for a sympathetic and relatable lead, you aren’t going to find it. He’s the embodiment of James Bond’s too-cool attitudes with none of the gravitas to back it up, but he’s also emblematic of the racism and sexism of the archetype’s origin, of which spy fiction of the era was almost wholly uncritical. It’s a clever deconstruction that’s played for laughs, but it’s also worth pondering once the credits roll.
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is a throwback in more ways than one, flawlessly replicating special effects and production design from the era of filmmaking it satirizes. It’s a clever mode of cultural reflection, using comedy to force us to examine our love of a particular genre and how that genre has failed in many respects to hold up to the progressive tests of time. At its core, the film still revels in the absurdity of its machinations, poking fun without feeling like a lecture or a condemnation of appreciation for spy fiction. But Cairo, Nest of Spies also hopes you come away from it with a bit more critical understanding of how we’ve grown beyond the roots of classic espionage thrillers.