A comedy set in the Middle East and made by a Western director (a French one, Michel Hazanavicius, no less!) has the automatic potential to be incredibly politically incorrect. Alas, all comedies are by nature politically incorrect and as a rule I believe that, to an extent, comedy is allowed to lampoon (otherwise this world would be very miserable indeed). I watched OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies) a 2006 French comedy not unlike the Austin Powers series which parodies spy films like James Bond (and, incidentally, the original OSS 117 books and movies, which were French and not comedies). As expected, the film made jabs at Egyptian culture and Islam, but I watched it with an open mind. However, there were a few things I just couldn’t help but notice…
Treatment of Egypt/Morocco
The film is set in Egypt in 1955, just after King Farouq’s overthrow by Nasser. Nevertheless, a distinct colonial feel permeates the film; hotel desk clerks and oud performers still wear the red tarbouche. Spy OSS 117 aka Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (the handsome actor Jean Dujardin) heads to Cairo to find out what happened to fellow spy and friend Jack Jefferson, who disappeared along with a Soviet arms cargo ship. Mr. Frenchy is a babbling bafoon who insults the country left and right, saying how it needs to “grow up” and modernize and how fortunate Egypt is to have foreign help. The talk about losing Vietnam and Morocco made me wonder if the French are really still pissed off that they lost their colonies.
Anyways, if Egypt doesn’t look like Egypt that’s because the film was shot in…Morocco. Probably in Ourzazate I bet! Some of the scenes are noticeably fake (talk about a 50s throwback!) and the scene at the pyramids the film could have done without (does every film involving Egypt have to see the pyramids?) Anyways, the alleyways are reminiscent of Morocco’s whitewashed kasbahs and the wharf of Alexandria, perhaps, but certainly not Cairo.
It wouldn’t be a Western interpretation of the Middle East without mixing cultures specific to different nations and cultures! The influence of Morocco continues with the costumes: OSS:117 dons a hooded robe that is expressly worn in Morocco, while djellabas also make an appearence. The societe de poulet is run by a man named Slimane, a name more commonly found in Morocco or Tunisia. Slimane also refers to OSS:117 as sidi (boss), more popularly used in Jordan. OSS 117 gets a rubdown in a turkish bath.
What looks to be the Muslim Brotherhood is called the Kheops
This movie came out before the Arab Spring, which is ironic because the group of “Kheops” Islamic radicals is no doubt a caricature of the Muslim Brotherhood, which for years was excluded from power. The Kheops radicals declare war on the infidel that silenced the muezzin (see below). But in another typical gesture of cultural illiteracy, the film gives a Islamic radical group the name of an Ancient Egyptian pharoah. Seriously? The Egyptian culture has made it past the pyramids, scarabs and Underworld gods since then.
Treatment of Women
It’s not surprising that the film’s depiction (and treatment) of women is stereotypical: Arab women are either depicted as oppressed and meek, or sexy seductresses. Nid d’espions chose the latter. French actress Bérénice Bejo plays Larmina El Akmar Betouche, OSS:117’s confidente and eye candy who worked for Jack as his secretary. Classy and demure yet sexy, Larmina can dance the mambo and wear strapless dresses but she supports the Islamic radicals and despises OSS:117 for his remarks on her religion. French-Moroccan actress Aure Atika plays Princess Al Tarouk, the predictably sexy assassin who tries to kill OSS:117. Even after he disarms her and ties her up, she still wants to have sex with him. OSS 117 fawns over both of them in typical chauvinist fashion, putting down Larmina’s intelligence and driving abilities. The scene where Larmina tries to kill OSS 117, fails, and is then stripped to her undies and tied up would be funny if it didn’t include the Kheops radicals dumboundedly and lasciviously eyeing her from the doorway. The suggestion of rape and the uncontrollable Arab male could have been left out, merci beaucoup.
So the films humour may center on spy OSS:117’s daffy cluelessness and buffonish charm and jokes on Islam, but it’s kind of OK. At the societe de poulet OSS 117 gets into a chicken-throwing fight with his unknown pursuaint. OSS 117 disguises himself as a oud player (with a tarbouche!) to listen in to a conversation between Larmina and the Kheops Imam and is forced to give a solo performance, which he does spectacularly. OSS:117 cannot understand the racket the muezzin (call to prayer) is making at 5 in the morning that he storms outside and shuts him up, oblivious to the religious nature of the muezzin. Later on, Larmina chastises his actions in the funniest quip of the film which highlight its outrageousness.
Larmina: Make love to you? You silenced a muezzin just so you could sleep! I’d rather screw a pig on a holy Friday! You judge my country and religion with condescension.
OSS 117: I can’t believe it. Your cigarettes, your mambo, your tits mixed up with these fanatics!
Between the laughs, maybe the West could reflect on its own sensitivity.