Int’l Critics Line: Lisa Nesselson On Jean Dujardin Secret Agent Spoof ‘OSS 117: From Africa With Love’


The cluelessly arrogant secret agent with a name as silly as his retrograde attitudes — Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, aka agent OSS 117 — is back in OSS 117: From Africa With Love. Everybody loves a secret agent, even a demonstrably buffoonish one, and versatile Jean Dujardin is a deadpan delight as the staunchly patriotic Frenchman whose adventures were last on the big screen in 2009’s OSS 117: Lost In Rio and 2006’s OSS 117: Cairo, Nest Of Spies.

Michel Hazanavicius — for whom Dujardin starred in 2011’s five-time Oscar winner The Artist — directed the previous OSS entries. Taking the reins here is talented multi-hyphenate Nicolas Bedos (La Belle Epoque), and while the result is not consistently as funny as the first two installments, this is an entertaining popcorn movie that’s also a healthy satire of imperialist self-assurance, perhaps best summed up by Hubert’s sincere belief that everybody on Earth wishes they were French. 

The Gaumont release, which closed the Cannes Film Festival, is clearing the 1M admissions mark ($6.4M) in France, and is one of the summer’s biggest local titles (it bears noting that the market is down overall due to the health pass requirement).
The action in From Africa With Love kicks off as Hubert is being held prisoner by the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1981, but makes a daring escape involving taunting a Russian baddie, pulling the pin on a grenade and leaping aboard a helicopter in flight. OSS 117 exudes confidence and might just be the luckiest dolt alive.

The opening credits sequence is a glorious pastiche of 007-style visuals complete with a rousing theme song. The irreverent tone is set and — via real ambition and stylistic smarts — is fairly well maintained, despite a narrative lull or two.

Reporting back to headquarters in Paris, OSS 117 is introduced to young whippersnapper OSS 1001 (Pierre Niney who, like Dujardin, boasts a range of screen performances from heavily dramatic to flat-out silly). OSS 1001, real name Serge, cover name ‘Bob Nightingale,’ is overjoyed to meet his idol, whose Ken Doll haircut and fitted wardrobe couldn’t be further from the young agent’s long hair and casual garb.

Serge sets off on a solo mission to Eastern Africa where a revolution is being fomented against longtime dictator Bamba (veteran stage actor Habib Dembélé). Bamba is a strategic partner for France and if his detractors end up in prison or eaten by his pet leopard, well, management styles differ.

When Serge drops out of contact, OSS 117 is sent to Africa to rescue him and, together, complete the mission. (The French title translates, with knowing color-coded irreverence, as Red Alert In Black Africa). 

The humor stems from the fact that Hubert believes in what he’s doing — including when what he’s ‘doing’ is prodigiously screwing things up for his partner or a group of valiant African freedom fighters.

Hubert has no doubt that he’s irresistible to women and when one of his pick-up lines lands with a thud we can see that he’s baffled. Only the most literal-minded viewer would think that the racist and sexist gags are genuinely racist or sexist, when they are obviously merciless comical critiques of that mindset. Hubert gets away with his gaffes and outrageous pronouncements because he’s clearly oblivious. The tag line on the French poster translates as “Times have changed — he hasn’t.”

While the gags are an ode to Hubert’s willful ignorance, the subtext is critical of France’s ostensibly well-meaning but ultimately exploitative and disastrous policies in Africa. The Black members of the cast are all far sharper than Hubert.

Natacha Lindinger as sexually liberated hotel manager Micheline Pierson and Fatou N’Diaye as Bamba’s multi-faceted wife Zéphyrine both run intellectual rings around Hubert. 

Dujardin is particularly funny when Hubert appears to have evolved, only to glaringly double down on his incomprehension of what one does or doesn’t say in situations where the geo-political stakes are enormous.

Bedos, who has proclaimed his debt of affection to such 70s/80s aces as Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, Chris Columbus and Philippe De Brocahas, has the budget needed and locations in Kenya to mimic the adventure flicks that used to be a matinee staple. Bedos also composed the excellent score. Screenwriter Jean-François Halin, Dujardin and costume designer Charlotte David are the constants across all three OSS films and it’s a winning combination.

Dashing and prolific author Jean Bruce invented the character of OSS 117 several years before Ian Fleming gave the world James Bond. In the early 1950s, Bruce won an award for having written 32 books in 2 years. The OSS series — continued by his widow — numbers over 200 volumes. Bruce’s Hubert, however, was not comical whereas the 21st century iteration most definitely is.

The first two pictures were solid performers, grossing about $21M each in France. Music Box released those domestically, though a U.S. distributor for the current film is not yet in place.

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