Everyone is in on the joke in Quentin Dupieux’s latest work Smoking Causes Coughing, a film that laughs at the excessive amount of superhero content in today’s age.
French filmmaker (and techno musician) Quentin Dupieux is a director of the creatively bizarre. You can’t describe his filmography in any other way. He often delivers unique pictures that break the mold of reality by implementing ridiculous scenarios and making every single person onboard involved get in on the joke. Most importantly, I consider him the king of ninety-minute or less cinema, because all of his works last under or a few minutes over that runtime, and with great success. Once again, he strays away from that 90-minute runtime to deliver a satirical superhero film called Smoking Causes Coughing, that is more entertaining and funnier than the majority of films in said subgenre that have been released in these past couple of years. And it is completely absurd, as we are used to seeing in Dupieux’s cinema, and howl-inducingly comical from beginning to end.
Smoking Causes Coughing begins by introducing your new favorite avengers, dressed up in blue Power Rangers-like outfits, as they attack a giant turtle standing on its legs – which is technically a man inside a low-fi costume. From a huge pet bug in Mandibles to a murderous tire in Rubber, it is a Dupieux trademark to have an array of practical creations in the story. And since this film is set in a world of superheroes, there are plenty of such designs because of the villains: reptilian body parts, suicidal robot sidekicks, and puppet team leaders. Not even a few minutes have passed and you are laughing like a hyena due to these so-called heroes’ cheap and pantomime-esque fighting skills. Their individual attacks cannot take down the villain, but you know what will? The team-up finishing move, of course.
Their finisher involves shooting out the gasses that cigarettes are made of from the bracelets in their outfits, hence their name, the Tobacco Force (cue heroic music). The five-piece team consists of Nicotine (the brilliantly hilarious Anaïs Demoustier), Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), and Methanol (Vincent Lacoste, who seems to be featured in every French film imaginable, and for good reason). This attack is too powerful for the giant lizard to handle, and the beast ends up exploding into bits and pieces, thick black blood spraying everywhere. It even hits a local fan who manages to catch a glimpse of their fight from afar. After that disaster, the team high-fives each other, reminding me of other satirical pieces of popcorn entertainment like Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers or the stupidity of Wing Commander.
The Tobacco Force is led by Chief Didier (voiced by Alain Chabat) – a disgusting and pervy puppet rat with green goo slobbering all over his mouth while he speaks – and he commands them to spend some time together because their chemistry is off. He wants them to defeat the almighty powerful big baddie, Lizardin (Benoît Poelvoorde), who will destroy Earth by the end of the year. As the team is on their retreat together, Dupieux implements an anthology narrative structure to service the passing of time. He has superheroes comically sitting around doing absolutely nothing instead of having them stop crime, which is what a more conventional audience would want to see.
The Tobacco Force tell each other “scary stories” that are just as purposely ridiculous as the narrative we see – talking fishes, murderous helmets (this side story has a quick appearance by the effortlessly talented Adèle Exarchopoulos), climate change, amongst other tales. Despite all of that, the worst one of them all comes from their boss, Didier, as he has terrible news to tell. Lizardin is moving forward with his plan earlier than expected, and there is no way to stop him. Our extraordinary heroes begin to experience dread and melancholia as the end is inevitable. The only thing they can seem to do is light a cigarette – farcically contradicting the film’s title – and see if something changes, while still wearing their superhero outfits.
Smoking Causes Coughing is Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist take on superheroes. He doesn’t want to smear the film in highly-edited action sequences or pig out in CGI. Instead, Dupieux has them being lazy, sitting around a campfire while telling ridiculous tales, some fantasizing about kissing their puppet rat leader with potentially toxic goo running through its mouth, and being worried about the “inevitable” destruction of the world. The Tobacco Force is almost a useless team of vigilantes; their powers and attitudes serve no purpose; they are not close to being admired by the general public, unlike an Avengers or a Justice League. Their behavior leans more towards the Suicide Squad, yet less mighty and more futile – a dumpster fire quintet that you love to see on-screen due to their inability to be impressive.
As we are used to seeing in Dupieux’s films, the story is compiled by one ridiculous turn after the other. People who are not used to, or have not seen, his films might have a bit of trouble trying to get into the self-aware and purposely trashy vision in Depieux’s movies. But those of us who have seen them are increasingly engaged with his nonsensical inventions. The French filmmaker’s gags are stretched out too far, even to acid-trip terms, to cause reactions from the audience watching. When you think about them afterward, they seem like an amalgamation of ideas that don’t have much cohesion. But, somehow, that feeling of being perceived as incomplete is charming in Dupieux’s hands. Those gags never outstay their welcome. And if they could have run for a minute more, the antics would still have had the same comedic effect due to the cast’s line delivery and timing.
Everyone is in their comedic A-game and in on the joke. Not a single actor in the film feels out of place; they embrace the wacky tone with all of their might. Quentin Dupieux has constantly proven that he doesn’t need tons of money or lengthy amounts of time to create a compelling film that targets audiences seeking bizarre cinema. In terms of substance, Smoking Causes Coughing feels lacking when you look at Dupieux’s other recent release, Incredible But True. His superhero movie feels more like a film made for laughs that fits the times, rather than one that elicits thoughts and analysis. Yet, when you look at the times and reflect on the superhero films that have been released, this one stands out. It is a breath of fresh air in the over-saturated subgenre.
Outside of Matt Reeves’ The Batman, this film surpasses most, if not all, of the recent superhero movies that got a theatrical release, both distinctively and entertainment-wise. I think John Waters described Dupieux’s film best in his end-of-the-year list description: Smoking Causes Coughing is indeed a “superhero movie for idiots” – a bloody and constantly uproarious film that laughs at the face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Let’s hope Dupieux keeps making these bizarre and hilarious pictures for years to come because nobody is making these types of films at a constant rate like him. Would it be greedy of me to ask for a second adventure of these chain-smoking Power Rangers?
Smoking Causes Coughing is now available to watch on digital and on demand in the US and will be released in cinemas in the UK & Ireland on July 7.