From a wry documentary exploring anti-Semitism (Defamation, 2009), The Evening Class shifts to a stylish feature that wickedly flaunts Jewish stereotypes. OSS 117: Lost in Rio saw its Bay Area premiere on Halloween night as part of the San Francisco Film Society's 2009 French Cinema Now (FCN) series, where--in turn--Robert Avila wrote up such a clever synopsis that I won't even try to compete: "Temperatures and laughs are up, tops are down and cultural sensitivity is at an all-time low in this send-up of super-spy Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, aka OSS 117, the foreigner-fighting, Cold War hero of the popular de Gaulle-era novels by Jean Bruce. The bastard child of James Bond and Inspector Clouzot (played with mesmerizing scenery-chewing élan by French superstar Jean Dujardin) fumbles merrily through a meticulously realized Brazilian wonderland in hot pursuit of a Nazi blackmailer, and in collaboration with a rather-hot-herself Mossad agent (Louise Monot). To call this Frenchman a "fish out of water" would be to assume OSS 117 even realizes that the pool has a border beyond the island bar. In the follow-up to international hit OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, cowriter-director Michel Hazanavicius re-teams with screenwriter Jean-François Halin to deliver more international scandal, hijinks, outrageous chauvinism and global hilarity with this audience-pleaser that also ruthlessly skewers colonial arrogance."
Michel Hazanavicius started his career in 1988 on the French television channel Canal +, writing skits for a popular Saturday Night Live-style TV show Les Nuls and TV parodies such as Le Grand Détournement and Derrick contre Superman. He made his film debut as an actor in City of Fear (1994). After writing and directing various short films, he co-wrote his first feature film in 1996, Delphine 1, Yvan 0, followed through in 1998 with The Clone, and made his debut as writer/director with Mes Amis (Friends, 1999), starring Yvan Attal. In 2004, he wrote the script for The Daltons (2004). From 1999 to 2005, he directed more than 40 commercial films and co-wrote the television documentary Rwanda: History of a Genocide (2004).
But it was with OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies--Hazanavicius's first jaunt with Eurospy Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath--that critics and audiences began to take notice. Hazanavicius was awarded the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Feature at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival and the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix at the 2006 Tokyo International Film Festival. In 2007, Jean Dujardin won Best Actor at Étoiles d'Or. And at the 2007 Cesars, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies received five nominations (Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Screenplay Adaption, and Best Production Design), earning Maamar Ech-Cheikh the Cesar for Meilleurs décors.
It was Michael Hawley who first caught OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies in the World Cinema Now section of the 2007 Palm Springs International Film Festival, which he wrote up enthusiastically for The Evening Class in his overview of French cinema at PSIFF07. We were both delighted to catch the sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio in FCN's 2009 line-up.
Introducing the film, Hazanavicius thanked his FCN audience for attending on Halloween night and stated that he was very glad to be in San Francisco. He recalled that the last time he introduced the film, he was in Siberia, which was why he was glad to be in San Francisco. He observed that Siberians look very much like San Franciscans, even though he understood San Francisco was celebrating Halloween. For those who had not seen the first OSS film, Hazanavicius described the lead character Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, aka OSS 117, as a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, and an anti-Semite. "I hope you will love it," he grinned.
As the lights came down, Hazanavicius and I walked across the street to La Mediterranee so he could catch a spot to eat while we discussed his film. My thanks to Hilary Hart of the San Francisco Film Society for facilitating the interview and to Natacha Ruck for her interpretive assistance.
Michael Guillén: It's my understanding that this project came to you by way of producers who wanted to revive the OSS 117 series?
Michel Hazanavicius: Yes.
Guillén: Whose decision was it to shift OSS 117--which until then had been a fairly straight-faced series, both in the novels and the earlier films--towards comedy?
Hazanavicius: The producers wanted to make it a comedy, even though they didn't quite know what kind of comedy they wanted. They contacted Jean-François Halin to write the first draft, which--in my opinion--was very funny. In his draft Halin created the foundation for a super-heroic character who is also racist and sexist. Once the draft was in place, they cast Jean Dujardin in the role. He was involved with the project even before I was. Then they began looking for a director. They approached three or four directors who all refused, perhaps because they didn't find the script funny? Perhaps they worried it was too racist? I think they were a little bit afraid of that. But when it came to me, I found it funny, and knew that--as a director--I had my work cut out for me to make the movie as funny as the script, even though there was no ambiguity that OSS 117 was racist. It needs to be distinguished, however, that the movie is not racist.
Guillén: Some of the humor is specifically French; but, how has the comedy played internationally? Now that you've shown the film around, can you speak to the different reactions in different countries?
Hazanavicius: Here in America, audiences laugh a lot except for one scene where it doesn't appear they "get" what is going on because it has to do with the internal affairs of France. But even when I worked on the scene, I wasn't sure the French would get it either. It's the scene where OSS 117 comes back to his office to speak with his boss and they nickname their colleagues using typical French names. In America, and in other countries, no one understands what's going on and they don't laugh; but, in the other sequences, everyone gets the joke.
Guillén: I'm intrigued how the humor is worked out through the subtitles? Did you work closely with the people who created the subtitles to make sure the humor was exact? For example, the wordplay between Heinrich/Friedrich/"hairpiech"?
Hazanavicius: It's very difficult to keep the humor in the subtitles. You lose 15-20% of the jokes; but, that's the game. That's the way it is and you can't do anything about it. I'm especially a little bit sad about the end of the movie, the last sequence, which I find very funny because OSS 117 and his boss are two strange guys from the French administration of the '60s and they're really stupid. They crack some bad jokes, which are funny and not funny at the same time. The scene plays a game with this and I think it's impossible to translate in the subtitles, though it still works somewhat. There's a Chinese character named Li and lit [which is pronounced the same] means "bed" in French and the two of them make puns such as OSS 117's cover name being like bed covers. Even now it's hard to get across.
Guillén: In your interview with Prudence Ivey for Little White Lies, you mentioned that adapting the OSS 117 novels was a way for you to speak about today and that--by borrowing the mood of the past--you could say things that they wouldn't be able to say at the time. Can you expand on that? What is the mood of the past you're borrowing? And what is it you feel you can say now that couldn't be said then?
Hazanavicius: There are themes in the movie that were never treated in the past--racism, sexism, anti-Semitism--which were not considered funny in the past. Nobody, or very few people, joked about or even spoke about such things in the '60s. Placing the action of the film in the '60s was a good way to comment on these themes because the lead character, OSS 117--who represents certain attitudes of the time--is very stupid and doesn't even know he's stupid. He doesn't even know he's talking badly. He can say these horribly racist things but at the same time he's innocent in a way because this is how men like him thought in the '60s. If you had an actor say the same lines in today's world, it wouldn't be acceptable because he would be seen as prejudiced. But it's somehow acceptable in the '60s because the time was more innocent than now. OSS 117 doesn't even know what he's saying; he's naïve.
Guillén: His cluelessness actually lends him an odd harmless charm.
Hazanavicius: Yes. This is how I've cheated as a filmmaker. We've taken a character from the '60s but interpreted him as we see him today. Nobody can say such things today. If the action were set in the present, no one would like OSS 117; but, back in the '60s, he could joke about whatever he wanted.
Guillén: So you're saying that--by setting the action in the '60s--OSS 117 is entitled through a certain naïvete to say what would now be classified offensive and politically incorrect?
Hazanavicius: His comments are more digestible. From the perspective of distance, we can accept them more.
Guillén: Some might argue with you. You have been quite adamant stating that you are not flirting with anti-Semitism; yet, much of the humor in Rio is levied against Jews. At a time when the Israeli government is pushing its Brand Israel campaign, do you have any indication how this humor is being received by Jewish people, or more pertinently the Israeli government?
Hazanavicius: No. When you make a comedy, there will always be people who won't laugh at your movie. Perhaps a Jewish person in my audience won't like the film as much as a non-Jewish person in my audience? Maybe they won't find the movie funny precisely because of OSS 117's anti-Semitism? But no one has accused the movie for anti-Semitism or blamed the movie for false reasons. So far, everyone has played the game and everyone knows that we are laughing at OSS 117, not Jews. If anything, we are laughing at his racism. The film is not racist.
Guillén: That's the sophistication of the film's humor. Further, it provides equal opportunity in its racist humor. On the flip side, you have the German Nazis who have carried through both movies as comic villains. You've expressed that you think Nazis are funny....
Hazanavicius: My Nazis are funny.
Guillén: Have you had any reaction from German or Austrian audiences?
Hazanavicius: [Chuckling] You mean from the Nazi community? [Laughs.] No, I would love to show the movie in Germany; but, they haven't invited me, so.... I would love to go to both Israel and Germany just to see their reaction. But this is another trick with the Nazis. You can have the worst character you want saying the most horrible things throughout the movie if his enemy is the Nazis; he will always be the good guy by comparison. The Nazis are a practical trick for me.
Guillén: As a Chicano, I have to ask what's going on with the Mexican wrestlers?
Hazanavicius: I love them! Do you know the movies with Santo?
Guillén: Como no?
Hazanavicius: They're not masterpieces; but, I love those movies.
Guillén: Much of the films' stylishness comes from its intelligent and playful use of cinematic citation, referencing films and styles of past decades. Rio's stylistic split screening is an homage to The Thomas Crown Affair. The final sequence is reminiscent of North by Northwest. Plus the trapeze flashbacks come from Elvis Presley's Fun In Acapulco. Are there any I'm missing?
Hazanavicius: Between the cinematic citation and all the bits we've downright stolen, there's a lot in Rio! I take something I like in a movie and I put it in my movie.
Guillén: Like--they say--an actor steals a bit.
Hazanavicius: We can call it an homage. We can say it's cinematic citation. But I'm also just a thief. For example, the suits OSS 117 wears are the exact same suits worn by Paul Newman in Harper. The furniture around the swimming pool is the same furniture from the Matt Helm movies with Dean Martin. There's a lot of things I've taken from other movies and put in my movie.
Guillén: So as precursors for the OSS 117 character, you've borrowed from Paul Newman, Dean Martin, certainly Sean Connery?
Hazanavicius: Yes, of course.
Guillén: I understand Sean Connery phoned you to express his admiration of the first OSS film?
Hazanavicius: Yes! Actually, my wife Bérénice Bejo was the actress in the first film Le Caire, nid d'espions (Cairo: Nest of Spies). The fact is that my father-in-law has a friend who is one of Sean Connery's best friends. He called Sean Connery and said, "I have to show you a movie. You have to see it." So he invited Sean Connery to come over and watch the DVD of Cairo. We didn't know he'd done that. But at the end of the movie, Connery asked for Bérénice's phone number and he called us. We were as excited as children!
Guillén: Well, Michel, don't you think you should have asked Connery to play a cameo?
Hazanavicius: No, I didn't dare to ask him. I dream of it; but, no. Maybe I was stupid?
Guillén: I think you were. [Laughter.] I read elsewhere that the only danger Jean Dujardin felt in making the film was having his ass stretched by a beard? I hope it's not too indelicate of me to repeat that; but, I found it hilarious.
Hazanavicius: [Laughs.] Dujardin was very anxious about the hippie love orgy.
Guillén: It was brave of him.
Hazanavicius: Yes. He told me and I knew that it's not his self-conception as an actor to perform nude scenes. He's not a great fan of that. But I wrote in this sequence and--a few days before we shot it--he was asking me, "How are you going to film this? Are you sure you're going to do it?" "Yes," I told him, "you read the script." I saw that he was uncomfortable with the idea; but, it was written in the script and I wanted to do it because I thought it was funny. So he did it. We filmed at night on the beach near Rio and all the extras were very cool. There was no pressure. When we started to shoot, I put on the music we used in the film: Minnie Riperton's "Loving You." Dujardin really loved shooting the scene. A few days after he said to me that it was a great moment for him.
Guillén: It was a brilliant moment, as indicative of the '60s.
Hazanavicius: Exactly. I said to him, "If we do a movie set in the '60s, we have to have nude beaches." We couldn't be prudish like we are today. We needed the nude people to reflect the spirit of the '60s. He told me later that it was a great moment for him and he felt like he was entering a hot tub. He liked it.
Guillén: OSS 117's gender fluidity is wryly transgressive. He attracts women but he doesn't seem to bed them. And he seems to have conflicted feelings for his male associates. What kind of woman would it take to catch OSS 117? Or, for that matter, what kind of man?
Hazanavicius: First of all, I don't think of OSS 117 as a real human being. He's a cliché. I think it's a game with all these hypermasculine characters in Hollywood productions from the '40s through the '60s that they're all a little bit gay. [Chuckles.] Because the way they treated women in those films, and the way they treated their friendships--in the westerns, in the cop movies, in the gangster movies--is very strange. Women are treated as objects and the heroes never really fall in love with them. Generally, the heroes are more attracted to their comrades than to women. I know that there were a lot of writers in Hollywood who were gay and they took fun and pleasure in hiding gayness in these written scenes. It was a game for them. And it's been fun for me to take these male figures and put them in gay situations, just to see what happens.
Guillén: Such a game especially works with OSS 117. I understand you met Dujardin filming Le grand détournement (1993), a.k.a. La classe américaine (1993), your collaboration with Dominique Mézerette....
Hazanavicius: No, I didn't meet him on that shoot. That's when he was exposed to my work. That's when he became aware of what I was doing.
Guillén: Le grand détournement was never released, is that correct?
Hazanavicius: That's correct.
Guillén: But I was curious about it precisely because of your gift for citation. I understand it was a montage of archival footage taken from the Warner Brothers catalog and dubbed to fit the narration of an altogether different story. Can you tell me what the story was about?
Hazanavicius: The story was like Citizen Kane. John Wayne's name in the movie is George Abitbol, which is a French-Jewish name from North Africa. In the movie he's dying and his final words are, "Monde de merde!" or "World of shit!" He was supposed to be the classiest man in the world so two journalists--Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (from All the President's Men)--investigate what he meant by "monde de merde" when he died. This is, of course, like "Rosebud." In the course of the story, they meet many other great actors as other characters and every one of them tells a story about their relationship with George Abitbol (John Wayne).
Guillén: Sounds like fun.
Hazanavicius: The whole thing was very very stupid.
Guillén: I can work with stupid.
Hazanavicius: Well, if you like OSS 117, I'm sure you'd love it.
Guillén: Though I understand there is not an immediate OSS 117 sequel in the works, I've heard that you are working on a project with Dujardin that pays homage to the pioneers of silent film: Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Is that still in the works?
Hazanavicius: It's not specifically about Chaplin and Keaton; but, it's a silent movie. It's going to start completely silent with some music and eventual sound.
Guillén: Is it a comedy?
Hazanavicius: Not so much. It's more a melodrama with some funny situations.
Guillén: Is there a working title?
Hazanavicius: No, not yet.
Hazanavicius: They both come from the same comic book, which is famous in France. But, unfortunately, The Daltons was a bad movie.
Guillén: You're not proud of that one, eh?
Hazanavicius: No. I love the actors in the movie but the movie's not good.
Guillén: Well, let's not talk about that one then. The humor in both OSS films comes from different directions. I'm sure you've had a lot of input, as has Jean-François Halin, and for that matter Jean Dujardin? You've all collaborated on the humor. How has that worked? What was the process like to create the humor?
Hazanavicius: As I mentioned earlier, Jean-François wrote the first draft for Cairo: Nest of Spies. I rewrote the script but in the direction he created. For Rio, I was involved with preparing the first draft of the script. Jean-François and I worked together; but, we knew the character so it was easier. The first film had to be somewhat pedagogical to show the audience that we were not racist nor simply making a film to make racist jokes. We had to present ourselves. With the sequel, the joke was already established so writing that script was easier. I think what unites Jean-François, Dujardin and me is that we trust our audience. There have been maybe only two jerks in our audience who felt our films were truly racist, sexist and anti-Semitic; but, I suspect there are many people who would side with these two people and who don't want to laugh at our jokes and who would rather be tactful and politically correct; but, actually, I don't care. I'm creating my film for the audiences who want to laugh and enjoy the humor. I trust that the audience can understand the humor.
Guillén: Would you say that the humor in Rio is more broad and obvious than in Cairo?
Hazanavicius: You know, I'm not sure. The humor in Cairo was more surprising. In the second film, it's not so surprising; but, I like that. Cairo was a little bit less funny because we had to be very careful. Maybe Rio is a little less subtle than Cairo, I don't know, but that was not the intention. We wanted to make a good movie and I always said to Jean-François, and then the crew, "We have to kill the first one. We have to forget it and do another movie."
Guillén: My final question: what amuses you the most about the character of OSS 117?
Hazanavicius: That's difficult to answer. I think it's the balance. He has qualities. I think he's a good guy but he's learned some bad things from the society he grew up in. He repeats what he's heard. But if someone tells him to think differently, he will. He's a soldier. But he's enthusiastic, he's brave, and he likes it when he can be physical. So it's that balance. And what I really like about the character is what Dujardin brings to it because on paper I control the lines; but, what Jean adds makes me a spectator....
Guillén: It's his gift to you?
Hazanavicius: Yes! So that's what I like about the character because I don't control it. It becomes new for me.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.