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Licence to gaffe: France’s answer to Austin Powers hits the big screens

·4 min read

Opening in cinemas across the country on 4 August, OSS 117: From Africa with Love is the third film in the comedy spy series, featuring Oscar winner Jean Dujardin, Pierre Niney and Senegalese actress Fatou N'Diaye.

Screened at Cannes as the closing film, hopes are high that the saga will provide a boost for French cinema over the summer.

Adapted from a literary series by Jean Bruce, OSS 117 has in the space of a decade won over French audiences with its goofball antics and un-politically correct style.

A parody of James Bond in essence, but closer to Mike Myers' Austin Powers franchise in terms of corny, with special attention paid to the kitsch décor of the era, be it 1950s or the 1980s.

Comedian and writer Nicolas Bedos took over from Michel Hazanavicius who directed the first two films: OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009) both if which attracted two million spectators each.

Hazanavicius went on the direct Dujardin in The Artist (2011), who won an Oscar for best actor.

Bedos, who won three Cesar awards for his film La Belle Epoque says he knew that he was taking on a challenge when he signed up, but one he adored, because it was about team effort and being able to pay homage to the adventure movies which marked his childhood and his love of James Bond.

He also acknowledged that working with the script writer Jean-François Halin (who collaborated on the first two films) gave him confidence.

The action in OSS 117: From Africa with Love ( Alerte Rouge en Afrique Noire) takes place in 1981, at the end of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing’s time as French president, with Dujardin playing Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath alias OSS 117, the passé white alpha male, who thinks he’s still the bee’s knees.

Dujardin brings his usual je ne sais quoi to the role, impeccable in his shiny suits, greased back hair, dark glasses and cringe-worthy jokes.

He is sent on a mission to “Africa” (an unspecified country) to contain an emerging rebel uprising and lend support to the president who is “guaranteed” re-election.

“Africans are joyful, friendly and they dance well,” he says knowingly.

Yes, except that times have changed. “They see racism everywhere now,” warns his boss, which leads OSS to double his efforts to appear not racist but failing miserably (and hilariously) at every turn.

Filmed for the most part in Kenya, the story tackles the issue of françafrique, the term used to describe the paternal attitude of France towards its former African colonies, using every crass stereotype in the book.

"It’s not just the politically incorrect with its necessary provocation and shock factor I’m after, it’s the freedom to express humour," Bedos told AFP. "We’re making movies for spectators, not for Twitter !"

OSS meets his match with Pierre Niney, the agency’s latest recruit under the serial number OSS 1001 and the pair’s verbal sparring is the essential spice to this latest episode.

In real life, Pierre was only 16 when the first OSS came out, so his amazement at meeting the “real” original OSS is palpable on-screen.

1001’s upbeat, modern look complete with jewellery and tinted hair prompt a flurry of homophobic asides from the frustrated OSS 117 who sees his own virile performance not making its usual mark with the ladies. But OSS 1001 proves he’s every bit the tough guy, except when…(oh let’s not spoil the end!)

One of the women - Fatou N'Diaye - who plays Zéphyrine the president’s wife by day and bad girl rebel chief by night gives OSS 117 a run for his money. She ends up inevitably in OSS’s arms, but not without a fight.

A welcome distraction

With its subtle references to the debates going on in the public sphere, be it #MeToo, or cancel culture, OSS 117 may be just be the film which allows the public comic relief all while stirring a political and social conscience.

In any case, this colourful, kitsch romp through the savanna is exactly what it sets out to be – light humour with a nostalgic twist.

"It’s comedy,” Jean Dujardin told the Journal du Dimanche. “It’s meant to distract people, and it comes at a good time."

Will the film save the French box office? Will the controversial Covid health pass, set to become obligatory from 9 August, affect cinema attendance? Only time will tell.

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