PARIS — He’s a cross between James Bond and Archie Bunker — a French spy who always saves the day and gets the girl, but who’s also a walking dinosaur, spewing out sexist, racist and other problematic views of the world.
Little known outside France, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, the clueless hero of the “OSS 117” spy spoof movie series, is part of France’s pop culture. People quote from the films. Students at top universities debate his significance. The films represent a fading imperial power able to laugh at itself, and at its own struggle to adapt to a changing world.
So the release in cinemas this month of the latest installment, “OSS 117: Red Alert in Black Africa,” was a cultural moment that made the front page of many French newspapers. Starring one of France’s top actors — Jean Dujardin, who won an Oscar for best actor for “The Artist” in 2012 — the movie immediately reached the top of the box office.
But the new release also cast to the forefront an increasingly heated debate in France over humor: What can you laugh about and at whose expense?
In a society with deep fractures over religion and race, and with a belated, though significant #MeToo movement, it has become more complicated to laugh at, much less along with, “OSS 117.” It is a measure of how France has changed that the same character and humor in two previous films in the series, in 2006 and 2009, caused little disagreement.
“When the first two movies came out, these debates didn’t exist at all, or they were limited to a very small minority, and most spectators were in agreement that it was a funny movie and that it was even condemning prejudices,” said Chris Le Guelf, the author of “The Philosophy of OSS 117,” a book that popularizes philosophy through the fictional character. “But now the unifying nature of humor is being called into question.”
In the series’ three films, the action is set in a Cold War era when France “held its own, had influence,” as the conservative newspaper Le Figaro said in a front-page editorial praising the recent release. Whether in Egypt in the 1950s or in Brazil in the 1960s, the spy gets the job done — despite himself.
He has no interest in the history or culture of countries outside France. He blithely expresses his prejudice against Judaism and Islam, as well as his racism against those from corners of the world formerly colonized by France. He is driven to seduce women, perhaps to ward off self-doubts about his repressed homosexuality.
“He’s a character who resembles our fathers or our grandfathers,” said Mr. Le Guelf, 29. “Manly and reassuring, but also rigid, and sometimes ridiculous and resistant to change. He embodies a France that doesn’t necessarily want to see the country advance with social changes that frighten it.”
The latest film is set four decades ago just as François Mitterrand was about to enter the Élysée Palace, the first time the presidency fell into the hands of Socialists. The spy’s treatment of women is as retrograde as ever: He is seen patting women on their behinds at the spy agency’s headquarters in Paris. When a colleague wishes him a happy New Year, he replies, in English, “Me too.”
This time, his mission is to save a younger colleague — the incarnation of the sensitive, politically correct male — in a nameless country in “Black Africa,” an outdated term. “Africans are happy, nice and they’re good dancers,” the spy answers when his boss asks him what he knows of the continent. To beef up his knowledge on the flight over, he reads “Tintin in the Congo,” a comic book that depicts Africans as childish figures needing to be civilized by European colonialists.
At first, he is outclassed by his younger colleague, and he suffers from erectile dysfunction with his latest conquest, who speaks about the previously unmentioned topic of women’s pleasure. Eventually, though, he triumphs over his politically correct colleague.
Reviews tended to be split, along political lines — with ambivalence on the left and praise on the right. The Figaro editorial said the film’s humor was a liberating antidote in a climate of “fussy and oversensitive minds that are easily offended.” CNews, a conservative network, said, “We would have wanted more politically incorrect” content.
But Le Monde, in the center, said that “in wanting to make fun of the politically correct, the secret agent missed his target.” The left-leaning Libération said that the spy’s return against a “post-colonial” backdrop was just no longer funny.
“There was an ambivalence in the reaction because people have changed, but not the series,” said Florence Leca-Mercier, a lecturer at the Sorbonne and the co-author of “Sense of Humor” with Anne-Marie Paillet. “The spirit of the movie remains the same, but, in the past 10 years, France has changed.”
“You can’t laugh about anything anymore” is an often heard complaint as conservatives say France is becoming more and more politically correct.
In France, humor has traditionally been regarded as a form of liberation or catharsis, said Ms. Paillet, who is also a lecturer at École Normale Supérieure. Voltaire made fun of the king, she said, while Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine, mocks Islam and other religions.
But as with the reaction to the humor in the “OSS 117” films, laughing is no longer that simple in a changing France.
“We feel a certain freedom has been constrained, a certain freedom of expression for the sake of social consensus,” Ms. Paillet said.
Raphael Haddad, 64, a lawyer and a fan of the series who caught a matinee of the new movie at a cinema on the Champs-Élysées, said he found the film’s humor in the distance between the present and the France of four decades ago.
“We laugh at the ideas that people shared back then, about Africa, Blacks, communism,” Mr. Haddad said. “We laugh at that. We used to be able to laugh at that. Now we laugh, but with more difficulty.”
But Eymeric Langlois, 28, who went to see the movie on a recent evening, said that he hadn’t found the humor, even though he understood he was supposed to laugh at the character.
“Racist jokes worked in the first films 15 years ago,” he said, “but now, in 2021, irony isn’t enough to make them work.”
Léontine Gallois contributed reporting.