PARIS — James Bond, 007 the Exhibition provides just enough ludicrous, louche swagger to fill hard-living, hard-killing art stars with envy. The suave, swashbuckling, cocktail-sipping superspy 007 has been a cultural sensation, deflating diabolical ambitions for world destruction while savoring strange and lusty interludes, for over half a century.
This hot menagerie, occupying the Grande Halle of La Villette, has everything: a daunting black tunnel leads to a multisensory experience of sizzling stars, glamorous costumes, chic Pussy Galore, eye-spinning special effects, tricked-out fast cars, macho music licks, depraved casino kitsch, ostentatious villain quarters, astute art illustrations, tacky Honey Ryder, exotic neocolonial locations, transformer weaponry, jaw-dropping stunts, and all sorts of futuristic gadgetry. The whole spread, designed by Ab Rogers, sweeps you along a half-century history of stud style, from the Aston Martin DB10 and Q’s (Ben Whishaw) personalized laptop from Spectre to Ursula Andress’s white bikini from Dr. No and Daniel Craig’s blue swimming trunks.
In the many 007 film clips sprinkled around the show, I noticed that Bond’s trials and tribulations shuffle between a stylized, modernist naturalism and wild, flagrant artifice. The inclusion of artifacts like Ken Adam’s preliminary drawings of many of the memorable Bond film sets and the studio makeup sketch of Jaws’s teeth from The Spy Who Loved Me offer a peek at where the series’ devious creative process starts. Other outstanding articles that verge on art are the silver cast of Jaws’s teeth, Francisco Scaramanga’s golden pistol from The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), the six screens streaming opening title sequences from various Bond films (where I noticed most everything moving at a Thai chi pace), two low-tech prop bombs, two Octopussy drawings, and the kinky, life-size sculpture of the nearly naked, gold-painted woman lying on a slowly rotating bed from Goldfinger. This is Goldfinger’s famous victim of epidermal suffocation, who still holds a firm place in libido culture. On the other hand, the exhibition’s “Casino Room” is all about high-stakes, gooey glamor and dazzling, daft costumes. Savile Row tailor Anthony Sinclair’s beautifully structured suits, which Sean Connery’s Bond wore, are placed in a hilarious room of mirrors reflecting a plethora of glitzy chandeliers suited for Trump Tower-type baleful haughtiness.
The result of all this overstimulation is an uneven show with a shadier side that’s ripe for mocking. This is part of the fun of a series that strives to lift the lid on the male id. It’s amusing to learn that, in 1954, Ian Fleming sold the television rights to Casino Royale to CBS for a mere $1,000. And that John F. Kennedy, when he met Fleming at a dinner party in 1960, asked him about overthrowing Fidel Castro. (Kennedy listed From Russia with Love, which became the second Bond movie, as one of his 10 favorite books in a LIFE interview in 1961, helping to launch Bond’s success in the US.) Accepting (or not) Fleming’s pernicious pretentiousness is all a matter of initiation and taste.
Regardless, 007 the Exhibition delivers stylistic flourishes that don’t always hit their tarty targets. There is a fair amount of whimsical twaddle in the fashionable world on display here that demands no opinion or intellectualization. Indeed, I’ve often had the feeling of being infantilized while watching 007 movies. Bond’s fantastical male style seems so completely cliché, so distant from the goals for my life, that all I can do is glare in astonishment at this phallic panic running amuck. The series’ debauched anti-intellectualism makes me quite queasy. I know that Bond’s sexy style is supposed to make my imagination telescope (especially in the area of the gadgets), but I first have to run a gauntlet of my own suspicions. The style of Bond is sophisticated, elegant, and beautifully tailored narcissism. It makes very little difference that the absurd, pretentiously confident Bond character at times transforms into an endearingly tragicomic buffoon. Particularly in recent years, the 007 films have become self-referential and increasingly mannerist imitations of themselves.
There has always been a campy aspect to Bond’s world, and monster budgets have only heightened this caricature aspect, which increases as the franchise ages. But all along, sassy parodies in every style and medium have been drawing the series’ cheekier aspects out, often becoming more interesting than the 007 movies themselves in the process, as with Cyril Connolly’s short story “Bond Strikes Camp” (1963). But, alas, this icky exhibition only celebrates 007’s serious, slick, straight style, sticking to the conventional canon spanning Dr. No to Skyfall. This ultra-orthodox approach would have benefitted from a more subversive or sarcastic presentation. As is, the only thing that really sticks is the doomed beauty of 1962’s surf rock tinged “James Bond Theme” — dum did-d-dy dum, dum dum dum, dum did-d-dy dum — which plays ad infinitum throughout the show, leaving the visitor neither shaken nor stirred, just numbed.