Mere months after his last film — about a couple trying to cheat Father Time by way of a mysterious trap-door in their new home — France’s absurdist auteur Quentin Dupieux is back with Smoking Causes Coughing. Dupieux, also known as Mr. Oizo, is nothing if not prolific, with a filmography of trifles, mostly less than 90 minutes, revolving around everything from sentient killer tires to deerskin jackets to even one (my personal favorite) about a gigantic fly.
Dupieux has been hitting his stride lately. On that note, it’s a pity that Smoking Causes Coughing is a slight letdown from his recent output. As entertainingly unpredictable as Dupieux’s films are, they are usually just a few paces away from greatness, and the usual problem is coherency or, maybe more accurately, unevenness. More disappointing is that I quietly felt that Smoking Causes Coughing had potential to be his best premise yet. All the promotional images of a rag-tag group of Power Ranger rejects suggested a satire on contemporary superhero films and the masses’ insatiable appetite for them.
Well, that group of heroes, known as the Tobacco Force, make up about a third of Dupieux’s latest, which is an anthology of disconnected vignettes, most of which feeling like short films. While all show off the 48-year-old filmmaker’s commitment to delivering Adult Swim-esque lunacy with French sensibilities, the overall project feels half-baked as it relegates its funniest idea to framework.
Humorously named after chemicals, five avengers — Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), and Methanol (Vincent Lacoste) — make up the Tobacco Force. In the early minutes of the film, they defeat a giant turtle by spraying it with cancer-causing fumes that are so powerful, the beast explodes into a torrential burst of blood and guts. The group takes orders from a horny rat known as Chief Didier (voiced by Alain Chabat). Following the successful mission, Didier informs the group that they’ve prioritized themselves as individuals over the larger collective, and insists they take a vacation together to improve group morale. This occurs while an evil emperor (Benoît Poelvoorde) is plotting to annihilate planet Earth.
This is all captivating setup, but just as Dupieux is primed to take the piss out of superhero movies, he does the same thing with film structure too. While on their retreat, the Tobacco Force members pass the time by sharing scary stories around a campfire. This is where Dupieux gets the opportunity to show the ideas that have likely been festering in his mind during many sleepless nights. One woman (Doria Tillier) becomes existential and murderous after she finds and wears an ancient helmet. Later on, in another story, the owner of a sawmill (Blanche Gardin) accidentally feeds her nephew (Anthony Sonigo) into a woodchipper, reducing him to a disembodied set of lips floating in a bucket of blood. What ensues is a bonding opportunity for the relatives.
These films-within-the-film are mostly solid. The woodchipper aside might be one of Dupieux’s funniest and goriest creations yet. One problem, however. It doesn’t have an ending. You see, that particular story is told by the swordfish the Tobacco Force are cooking for dinner. When the fish is overcooked and burnt, he dies, and the story stops. Why? “No Reason.”
Unfortunately, we don’t really spend enough time with the Tobacco Force to know them as individuals nor do we see them take down any other villains outside of the turtle in the opening sequence. Griping that a Quentin Dupieux movie lacks logic is fruitless and entirely misses the point. But sidelining a unique and wacky concept for an assortment of shorts renders Smoking Causes Coughing marginally unsatisfying. It’s all in the marketing. I could’ve maybe accepted this as Dupieux’s own Twilight Zone, but alas, I’m left with a half-baked concept that spends significant time establishing itself before being almost entirely abandoned.
No less, Dupieux will be back with another film, maybe even before the end of the year. It will be weird, that I guarantee. And I’ll be ready to watch it, although maybe with more tempered expectations.
NOTE: Smoking Causes Coughing is available to rent on Vudu and YouTube.
Starring: Gilles Lellouche, Vincent Lacoste, Anaïs Demoustier, Jean-Pascal Zadi, Oulaya Amamra, David Marsais, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Grégoire Ludig, Doria Tillier, Jérôme Niel, Blanche Gardin, and Benoît Poelvoorde. Voiced by: Alain Chabat. Directed by: Quentin Dupieux.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!