Jean Dujardin, Icon of Impermanence

There’s a fantastic new podcast Kill James Bond! providing a critical eye on the tired old cliché and media it inspired, from the Ennio Morricone-scored, Neil Connery-starring Operation Kid Brother to apparent #wifeguy Michel Hazanavicius’ revisionist French takes on the Bond also-ran OSS 117. Something clicked hearing the hosts discuss the joy the hero of the latter, Jean Dujardin’s entitled, thoughtless Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, takes in simple moments and simple experiences. Joys typically filled with double entendres, like having his biscuit buttered or getting oiled up, as well as those that provided novel thrills for a 1950s character, such as taking an airplane… or, for a dandy, getting a chance to wear his new alpaca tuxedo.

Anyone reading this has probably secretly had similar moments, moments that you can’t share with a partner, of finding the perfect occasion, the perfect excuse for being able to display a fanciful indulgence. And, along with other fanciful details of old 1950s and 1960s spy movies like rear-projected driving scenes and blue-filtered day-for-nights, the makers of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies brought back the old tradition of having the hero’s suits made by a reputable tailor. Sean Connery and Patrick McGoohan had Savile Row tailor Anthony Sinclair, Cary Grant had a slew of Internet bores attempting to decipher a maker’s label in North by Northwest, and Dujardin’s spy had Jo Kergoat, renowned Paris tailor and protégé of none other than André Bardot, a founding member of the Groupe des Cinq of French custom tailors, the circle of prestigious 1950s tailors who shaped what French tailoring is today.

What is today? As tailored by Kergoat (who made 47 suits for the movie), Dujardin is a perfect French parody of Sean Connery, immaculately dressed in elegant detail – far better, for instance, than Daniel Craig ever has been as James Bond. Dujardin has reprised the role twice, once in 2009’s OSS 117: Lost in Rio, and now in OSS 117: Red Alert in Black Africa, which is slated to come out around the same time as the oft-delayed Bond film No Time to Die. In the meantime, during the long uncertainty of the pandemic, Jo Kergoat, who has previously raved that “everything’s going to hell and soon there won’t be a single real tailor in Paris," has helped fulfill his own prophecy and hung up his shears, at 91.

Hazanavicius and Dujardin have worked on other projects together, including the prominently Oscar-ed The Artist. Another period piece, it also featured the unusual attention to detail of French bespoke crafted clothing for Dujardin, this time from the custom tailor and shirtmaker at Lanvin, the oldest continuously existing French fashion house. Such a step was coherent with Dujardin’s role, a silent film star confronted with the new age of Hollywood talkies, in an age where studio systems practically required stars to maintain the same care in their off-camera appearance as in their highly orchestrated films. Not only was Lanvin one of Paris’ oldest couture houses, but with its men’s custom business founded in 1926 (in magnificent Art Deco premises decorated by Armand-Albert Rateau), it was one of the old guard of established French tailors, mostly forgotten names like Cristiani, Larsen, Knize and Creed (yes, the overhyped perfumers of today were once custom tailors to none other than the Shah of Iran, among others). An old guard against whom Bardot’s Groupe des Cinq had rebelled around the time that the action in the first OSS 117 movie takes place, because those five tailors (Socrate, Waltener, Camps, Bardot and di Nota) had wanted to show more progressive designs, back when prestigious custom tailors could set fashion because they dressed men of fashion, rather than being the isolated, crumbling redoubts they are today. And Lanvin itself lost its own such redoubt, after just under a century as one of the best, tailor and shirtmaker in the world, in the last year after the actual people responsible for such craft fled to the relative safety of Francesco Smalto… a tailoring house founded, ironically, by one of the alumni of the Groupe des Cinq.

It cannot be too coincidental that those two absurdly well-dressed, well-tailored roles make Dujardin confront periods of uncertain transition: his silent matinee idol facing the advent of films with sound and a whole new style of acting, and OSS 117, he who acts out all of the things 007 elides, like the need to carefully remove his custom suit jacket, shoes and cufflinks before jumping into bed with the femme fatale du jour, faced with the disintegration of colonial empires, of the illusion of France as a great power. In a way, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath is Eurocentrism himself, forced to encounter other cultures as they shrug off imperialism (in the case of his first film, through the Suez crisis that destroyed British and French pretenses of power), as all of the absolutes that composed his worldview break down. So indeed the tailors and shirtmakers that made him. One can no longer take the joys of an alpaca tuxedo for granted, no matter how elegant one momentarily looked in it.

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