Quentin Dupieux directs a bizarre parody of the superhero genre that’s often inconsistent but rarely dull.
When I come out of a movie, I have a fairly good idea of whether I liked it, and if I would recommend it to anyone. In the case of Smoking Causes Coughing, the latest work from Quentin Dupieux, the French provocateur behind such cult oddities as Rubber (2010), Deerskin (2019) and Mandibles (2020), I’m not entirely sure I could describe it as a proper film in the first place.
At first glance, the film appears to be a spoof of superhero movies focusing on Tobacco Force, a quintet of Power Ranger-style warriors who fight evil by harnessing and utilizing the deadly chemicals that go into cigarettes. After roundly defeating their latest enemy—a hilariously tacky kaiju-style giant tortoise, the five—Nicotine (Anais Demoustier), Ammoniaque (Oulaya Amamra), Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Mercure (Jean-Pascal Zadi) and Methanol (Vincent Lacoste)—are called in by Chief Didier (Alain Chabat), an acid-drooling rat who is nevertheless a hit with les femmes. The team is informed that, although their latest battle was a success, it lacked a certain sincerity and they’re sent to a remote retreat to repair their all-important cohesiveness.
Once they arrive, the film takes a shift in tone as the five begin telling each other scary/absurd stories that are depicted as films-within-the-film that take up the bulk of the remaining running time. In one, two couples vacationing together at a remote villa discover a strange helmet in a closet and when one of them (Doria Tillier) tries it on, she is unable to remove it. Her sudden (and to her welcome) detachment from reality inspires her to go on a killing spree against her housemates (including Adele Exarchopoulos).
In another, a sawmill owner (Blanche Gardin) discovers that her insanely optimistic nephew (Anthony Sonigo) has gotten himself stuck feet-first in a particularly nasty piece of equipment. Her attempts to free him are inevitably gruesome, and punctuated by the nephew’s repeated insistence that he feels fine and it doesn’t hurt at all. There is another tale that shall not be discussed, partly because to even hint at it would be to blow the surprise and partly because it is the film’s unquestioned comedic highlight.
Of course, no one goes to one of Dupieux’s films expecting logic or a completely cohesive narrative—this is a guy whose breakthrough film involved a homicidal car tire with deadly psychic powers that rolled around killing people while developing a romantic obsession with a young woman. Even if you’re on the fence about his past efforts, they have maintained some kind of internal logic, no matter how crackpot, that gave the audience some idea of what Dupieux was trying to say.
This time around, however, there isn’t much of that. After establishing the superhero satire conceit in the early scene, Smoking Causes Coughing devolves into something far more scattershot, a haphazard collection of bizarre ideas that Dupieux was unable to stretch into a full-length narrative. One could look at the film as an absurdist meditation on how people like to embrace narrative based on the idea of annihilation—whether by outer worldly creature or ordinary machinery—as a way to deflect from the horrors of everyday life. However, Dupieux doesn’t seem to have anything to say about that particular subject, or much of anything else.
As a result, Smoking Causes Coughing feels more like weirdo ideas stuck together almost at random than a cohesive story. Some of the ideas are very funny and some are considerably less so but, as Dupieux has tended to do throughout his career, he burns through his ideas, good and bad, so quickly that he ends up running on fumes after a while, even though the film clocks in at around 80 minutes. Dupieux has managed to recruit a stellar array of actors—presumably eager to goof off for a week or so before the camera—but they don’t really do anything besides stand around and look bemused by everything.
On the other hand, I cannot readily think of another film less concerned with the notion of “working.” That’s admirable to some degree, if only for its sheer audacity. Smoking Causes Coughing is a mess, to be sure, but when it is all over, you won’t come away from it thinking that you have seen all of that before.
Smoking Causes Coughing is now in limited theatrical release.