- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2006

PARIS

It’s like Sean Connery has slipped back into James Bond’s tuxedo, circa the 1960s.

The elegant swagger, the slicked-down hair and mobile eyebrows, the lascivious asides to women, the legs-splayed stance with the Walther PPK drawn and ready, the faded Technicolor tones and stagey scenes … everything recalls the early days of 007.

Only this superspy speaks French, bumbles along like Inspector Clouseau and incarnates all the naive arrogance of a fading world power unaware that its supposed cultural superiority is crumbling along with its empire.

Welcome “OSS 117” — a French film that affectionately spoofs the world’s most famous secret agent while simultaneously paying homage to a whole genre of films from another, much more innocent decade.

The movie, which opened last week to superlative reviews and long box-office lines in France, hits the sweet spot between Bond nostalgia and Austin Powers lampooning largely thanks to the talent — and the striking resemblance to Sean Connery — of its star, Jean Dujardin.

The 33-year-old is currently the hottest French comic talent on the big screen.

After making the jump from television, he became a cinematic sensation last year when he turned one of his stand-up characters into a movie. The result was “Brice from Nice,” a tale about a clueless French surfer dude looking for the perfect wave in the still-as-a-pond Mediterranean.

Now, playing Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, alias secret agent OSS 117, he’s set for even bigger success.

His latest movie is certain to gain attention from Bond fans everywhere, as well as those hungry for a cinephile parody of the sort of implausible but thrilling films from the 1950s and 1960s made by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock.

“It’s true that we take a jab at Sean Connery,” Mr. Dujardin told Le Parisien newspaper. “For me, it was all in the eyebrows.”

But the movie is also a knowing wink at the incongruity of Western superagents —be they British, French or American — flying to far-off lands to single-handedly save the world and steal the girl.

It’s no accident that “OSS 117” is largely set in Egypt. Bonisseur de la Bath quickly agrees, over a bistro meal in Paris, to go to Cairo, solve a murder, reinforce France’s colonial glory and, incidentally, establish security in the region.

Once there, he inadvertently triggers an anti-Western rebellion through his bumbling ways and eventually sets off what becomes the Suez Canal crisis. But he does get the girl.

Jean-Francois Halin, one of the screenwriters, told Liberation newspaper they chose a Middle Eastern backdrop “because of the gap opening up between the Western world and the Oriental world.”

He also said that, while the movie is stuffed with sight gags and rapid-fire dialogue, the aim was to keep the hero true to character, to avoid the outright parody that underscored “Austin Powers.”

“For us, OSS 117 shouldn’t be a walking disaster. He’s super-capable and, at the same time — what a waste!” he laughed.

The French agent’s pedigree is much more than a simple comic reconstruction of Bond, too.

In fact the character was created by a French novelist, Jean Brochet (pen-name Jean Bruce), in a series of books that first appeared in 1949 — four years before Ian Fleming’s initial Bond adventure, “Casino Royale,” came out.

But the OSS 117 in those books was a serious character — and an American one, albeit with French heritage, who worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of today’s CIA.

Although that OSS 117 made his way into a number of films, they earned nowhere near the success of the Bond movies, in no small part due to the lackluster leading actors chosen who were easily eclipsed by the hugely charismatic Sean Connery.

Now — reworked with a deft dose of irony and more than a few of Mr. Connery’s mannerisms — the French-born spy is back in from the cold, and getting a very warm reception indeed.

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