Hey folks! This is a classic from the archives. I wrote this back when I was in 2014 and remains one of my early favorite essays. In honor of reaching a year of releasing articles, I decided to dust off this old chestnut.
Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (codename OSS 117) is France’s most notorious secret agent. He is assigned to deliver 10,000 francs to Freidrich Von Zimmel, a former Nazi in Rio in exchange for microfilm containing the names of French Nazi collaborators. Along the way, he comes across a wide variety of enemies before stumbling into a group of Mossad agents planning to take Von Zimmel to Isreal to be tried for his crimes. He is given a partner unlike any he has had before, Dolorès Koulechov: a woman. Together they set aside their differences in order to bring Von Zimmel to justice.
OSS 117: Lost in Rio was released in 2009 by director Michel Hazanavicius and starring Jean Dujardin as the film’s titular agent. OSS 117 is faced with a variety of dilemmas, but the biggest one of them all is one he doesn’t recognize: his own prejudice. Throughout the film, Dujardin’s agent makes comments that are shocking, close-minded, and arrogant. Through the use of satire, this highlights the absurdity of discrimination in our modern world through the scope of the past. In OSS 117: Lost in Rio, the film’s protagonist is a textbook bigot and services the discouragement of bigotry by showing his behavior as unacceptable.
Within the first 5 minutes of the film, the audience is given a look into its satirical lens. The film starts out with an exciting and hilarious shootout in Gstaad between Hubert and a gang of Asian gunmen. All but Hubert and the sensual Countess are killed. Afterward, Hubert is romancing the Countess. He warns her to “Beware of Mr. Lee. And Chinamen in general. They covet your imperial family treasures.” This is the first (but not the last) instance of Hubert’s prejudices against minorities. The Countess looks at him in confusion and implies that he does not know much about China. He quips, “Well, you’ll have to show me parts of it, as private as they may be,” and they start to make love. This demonstrates how even though the things Hubert says are offensive and racist, his charm and dimwittedness disarm most allegations he receives. This sets the tone for the rest of the film and the played-up intolerance builds from there.
Throughout the film, Hubert is incredibly prejudiced towards anyone who isn’t a white, French male and his bursts of racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic statements are played up for humorous effect. He refers to Asians at one point as “Dirty yellows,” thinks women should only be mothers or secretaries, and at one point confuses Judaism with Islam. These are the three main targets of Hubert’s bigoted statements, but they are not the only ones. At a couple of points, Hubert makes prejudiced statements about factions of white men as well. At one point he visits the German embassy in Rio and asks if there is a list of former Nazis residing in Brazil. He is told that not all Germans are Nazis and he responds with “I’ve heard that theory.” Hubert’s narrow-minded statements are made to anyone who is not, white, male, or French. This elitist mindset that Hubert has comes from a fairly specific place in history.
The film takes place at the tail end of the 1960s, a time in France when specific political ideals were in place. At the end of WWII, France was rebuilding after a Nazi occupation that finally came to an end in 1944. One of the main leaders of this reconstruction was former Leader of the Free French Forces Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle wanted France to prosper especially after the humiliation of a foreign occupation. Through his terms as Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and eventually President of France, de Gaulle outlaid a basis for a foreign policy of national independence. The basic idea being that France should not have to rely on any foreign power for assistance and could keep control of its colonies on its own. Domestically there was also a concentration on social conservatism of French ideals and traditions. In doing this de Gaulle hoped that France would become a formidable world power, but it was sadly not to be. Many countries (The United States being one) found the ideas of Gaullism to be too idealistic and when de Gaulle finally resigned in 1969, the French people were beginning to think so as well. This historical perspective gives an insight into why Hubert may be the way he is.
Hubert is a mighty nationalist and his dedication to his native country makes him an extreme example of a Gaullist. He constantly makes statements showing his love for France. At one point he is asked to leave the money for the microfilm with the Mossad and he refuses, saying, “I can’t it belongs to France, and I can’t leave it with just anyone.” Hubert’s loyalty to his country is unflinching and it is one of the main sources of his bigotry. He is prejudiced against others because he believes that Frenchman will always be superior. The ideals his own country has taught him propel his elitism. However, those ideals are also thrown back in his face. At one point, Hubert and Dolores argue over what a dictatorship is:
Hubert: Do you know what a dictatorship is? It’s when people are communists, when they are cold with gray hats and boots with zippers. That’s a dictatorship!
Dolores: Then, what do you call a country with a military leader controlling everything, a secret police, and a single TV channel with every information controlled by the state?
Hubert: I call that “France”, Miss. Not any France, De Gaulle’s France…
Hubert seems to turn a blind eye to the hypocritical tendencies his country has at the time because he believes it is for the good of the country. He has many an opportunity to look at the flaws of his nation, but he chooses to ignore them. At the end of the film, Hubert confronts his boss, saying that his name was on the list of French collaborators with the Nazis. His boss plays it off saying that “What’s past is past. France needs to forget. To move forward.” Instead of questioning this, Hubert accepts it, believing it is for the good of the country. Moments like these show the naiveté of Hubert and give the audience a chance to laugh at how optimistic he is, yet blind to the issues in the nation he loves so much.
One must consider, though, that the film takes place in the tail end of de Gaulle’s reign in office and the widespread support of Gaullism is winding down. Hubert is told many times that his beliefs are silly and he is foolish to think otherwise. He meets a group of hippies and he is reticent to accept their ideals at first based on their appearance. He sees their desire to change the world as a half-baked idea, not practical in the world he sees, “This is not 1968: The Year of Youth.” The humor in Hubert’s speech to the hippies lies in Hubert’s inability to see how his own beliefs are just as irrational to the audience as the hippies’ beliefs seem to him. This causes both the audience to laugh, yet also feel sympathy for Hubert. When CIA agent Bill Tremendous confronts Hubert, Bill says to him that the France and US were only allies when France needed assistance for liberation. Hubert asks him what he means by that, looking genuinely confused and hurt by those words. Bill then laughs and jokingly replies “Sorry, you liberated yourselves.” Part of Hubert’s bigotry is caused by a deep allegiance to his country that has also been lying to him. This makes for some funny moments, but it also quickly becomes a political statement about the defects in France’s politics at the time. These are not made aware to Hubert or the audience until other, non-French characters point them out.
The humor of Hubert’s ignorance is made much more apparent through the reactions of the other characters around him. These characters, mostly of different marginalized groups than Hubert, are more of a conduit for the audience for they are just as disgusted by Hubert’s behavior as the audience is. Dolores is the character that gets the brunt of his abuse, belonging to two groups who frequently face discrimination: Jews and women. Dolores is shocked and offended at the statements Hubert makes at her. He constantly talks down to her, even though she is his equal. When they are first partnered together, Hubert is upset and storms off, saying to Dolores “Tell me when you have to carry something heavy.” Hubert’s sexist comments make him unlikable as a character at points because we see how much his words hurt Dolores. This causes her to fight back many times, saying things that the audience is also thinking such as, “Your theory on Jews, blacks, and women would be best kept to yourself. ” Dolores is more relatable to the audience than Hubert because her views are more in tune with modern times. However, Dolores as well as the audience find some forgiving qualities in Hubert.
As stated earlier, part of what allows Hubert to get away with saying the things he says is his dimwitted charm. Hubert says a myriad of prejudiced and offensive things, but he is saved because, despite what some might think, he means well. He is an elitist, but he is doing so for the love of his country. He is partly prejudiced because that was the way he was raised and he doesn’t understand the things he says could be considered inappropriate to say. He is completely oblivious to his behavior and that makes him laughable, yet also strangely relatable. Someone could say something and not even realize that it offended someone, even today. The audience can forgive Hubert at times for his flagrant stupidity because they can see a little bit of Hubert in themselves. A fan even once stated, “I laughed because Hubert and I rub shoulders at work.” These qualities of Hubert make him forgivable to the audience.
Hubert’s lack of awareness in the things he says makes him relatable, but also allows him to serve as a physical manifestation for discriminatory satire. The beliefs that Hubert has are morally wrong, but Hubert himself is not a bad person. Kenneth Burke describes that in satire, the subject being criticized is not characterized as “vicious, but as mistaken.” Hubert does not realize that his beliefs are warped, therefore the characters and the audience invite themselves “to attempt setting him right.” At one point, Dolores lists all the faults she finds in Hubert: “You’re old, pretentious, a misogynist, full of yourself, vain, borderline racist, tacky dresser, childish and not funny,” and Hubert only seems hurt by:
His inability to see his own faults that the audience wants to watch his struggle to change into a more tolerant person and that struggle lies at the heart of all satire. Earlier in the film, Hubert accuses Dolores of having no sense of humor, stating that he thought Jews had great senses of humor. Dolores responds back by saying Jewish humor is not too funny. Hubert asks, “Then how can it be humor then?” and Dolores responds with, “You pull it off. In your own way.” This is the core idea of what the movie is about: tackling these issues that many believe should not be made light of, yet are made fun of successfully.
The film broaches a very hot button topic in the world of satire: can we laugh at everything? Many people would say no, you could not laugh at all, and topics such as religion, sexism, or racism should not be addressed in a humorous manner ever. However, many people in the world tend to see humorous movies at a face value and instead of understanding the criticisms the filmmaker is trying to make onscreen, the result is “non-action, a reinforcement of the social problems as individual faults rather than systemic ones.” Satire is an often-misunderstood method of social criticism and is, in many ways, a double-edged sword. On one hand, it brings to light these incredibly divisive topics while also opening room for discussion. On the other hand, it could also be mistaken as promoting discrimination. What people need to understand about satire is that it is making lite of touchy subjects, but it is also “providing a platform to confront and correct problems.” Hazanavicius makes this incredibly apparent in Lost in Rio.
Hazanavicius not only wants us to laugh at the bigoted things coming out of Hubert, but he wants us to discuss these issues. Hubert is constantly characterized as a bigot and his behavior is unacceptable. Even the use of the time period would put the focus on the fact that sexism and racism were a part of the time and were more acceptable. However, as the other characters that Hubert interacts with demonstrate, sexism and bigotry have never and will never be acceptable no matter what time period. Hazanavicius is brave enough to broach these issues in a humorous manner and shows the audience that “if we cannot laugh about these topics, it is where we start discrimination.” By bringing up these issues, satire hopes to weaken the effects of sexism and prejudice on society.
OSS 117: Lost in Rio, presents a goofy, spy parody that also highlights a wide variety of social issues that make it great satire. The main character of Hubert is presented as a huge bigot and talks down to people who are different than him. However, his discrimination is because of nationalistic ideals as well as plain ignorance. This is meant to broach issues of sexism and racism being brought up in satire and is a call for change. If we do not discuss these topics, they cannot be changed and prejudice becomes a much stronger concept in society. Through the use of satire, we can understand the faults in our own society and find a way to make changes. Hubert may not be a fully changed man at the end of his adventure, but he makes considerable strides in becoming a more understanding person.