Louis de Funeshaving recently obtained “le gendarme integrale” – a collection of the six louis de funes movies wherein he plays a fiercely proud yet totally hapless member of the french national guard – it occurred to me that there’s an entire genre of movies whose underlying ethic is a simple, full-on embrace of the fabulousness of tourism.

the usual story is that air travel became affordable in the 1960s, so these movies functioned as an advertisement for and reflection of this new kind of activity. but i’m not sure that entirely explains them, and why they stopped. after all, with the advent of ultra-budget airlines in the late 1990s, europeans have become able to fly to all sorts of spots whose prior inaccessibility made them terra incognita. so why don’t we get “herbie goes to pristina”? “le gendarme à rzeszów”?

vicarious tourism seems to have shifted to television, with a kaleidoscope of documentary-style shows that could all be titled “watch me and my buddies ride motorcycles through africa” but for some reason it has become earnest, “real” (even if presented by celebrities), a testament to gritty humanity in all its guises etc etc.

the sheer dumb giddiness of the italian job, or of the roger moore-era bond, feels like it belongs to a naive and irretrievable past.

Jean Dujardin as O.S.S. 117which brings us to “o.s.s. 117 – le caire, nid d’espions” (“cairo, nest of spies”), both a french send-up of james bond and an ironic exhumation of a long-defunct french/italian film franchise, begun in 1958 with “o.s.s. 117 isn’t dead” and finished in 1970 with “o.s.s. 117 takes a vacation”.

jean dujardin looks for all the world like a suaver, hunkier jason biggs, but the script makes american pie look subtle. set in an indeterminately mad-men-ish era, this is a movie where nazis are hiding inside the great pyramid of giza (woops, spoiler). when the two leading ladies fight, they somehow manage to tear each others’ clothes off.

o.s.s. 117 revisits this era of uncomplicated chauvinism and sensational tourism knowing how things will turn out later, which is akin to that wonderful fantasy about going back to high school with all the knowledge you have now as an adult. the plot, for instance, involves radical muslims incensed at o.s.s. 117’s anti-religious affronts (to be fair, he did strangle a meuzzin at the morning call to prayer just so he could get some sleep).

after everything’s over, o.s.s. 117’s boss congratulates him on a job well done and tells him he’s got a new assignment for him. “it’ll be iran this time,” he says. “wonderful place, very different. they really appreciate westerners there.”

(being a french movie, though, the actual plot involves farming, specifically chicken farming, o.s.s. 117’s cover job. naturally he is so thick that he ends up becoming obsessed with it, abandoning his original assignment and becoming embroiled in the corrupt world of egyptian agriculture cartels.)

if the movie has a point – not that it needs one – it seems to be that us westerners – and specifically french people – carry around our assumptions and prejudices everywhere we go and rarely attempt to learn anything new about anyone. or at least we did in the 1960s. and may still do now. the movie leaves it pleasingly open-ended.

so all hail the wacky travel movie! the always-implicatedness of globalization has made you a rare species. we may never enjoy your pleasures as blindly as we once did, but (so?) let us find a way back to you.

François Damiensp.s. special mention should be given to françois damiens, a.k.a. françois l’embrouille, who is a kind of belgian borat (youtube searches are fruitful here). he plays a strange, uncomfortable livestock magnate with a hidden agenda and he holds the screen with a weird intensity that seems to come from somewhere else entirely.

p.p.s. the sequel to the reboot is out now in francophone countries – “o.s.s. 117 – lost in rio”.