REVIEW: Smoking Causes Coughing (2023, dir. Quentin Dupieux)

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 80 mins

UK Distributor: Picturehouse Entertainment

WHO’S IN SMOKING CAUSES COUGHING?

Gilles Lellouche, Vincent Lacoste, Anaïs Demoustier, Jean-Pascal Zadi, Oulaya Amamra, David Marsais, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Grégoire Ludig, Doria Tillier, Jérôme Niel, Blanche Gardin, Alain Chabat, Benoît Poelvoorde, Raphaël Quenard, Anthony Sonigo, Julia Faure, Jules Dhios Francisco

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Quentin Dupieux (director, writer, cinematographer, editor), Hugo Sélignac (producer)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A team of superheroes is forced to rebuild their team dynamic during a retreat…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON SMOKING CAUSES COUGHING?

Rule of thumb when watching a new Quentin Dupieux movie: if you go in expecting, well, anything, chances are you will feel somewhat cheated. The French absurdist filmmaker, formerly best known as the musician Mr. Oizo, has made a career out of crafting some of the most bizarre concepts in modern cinema – his most notorious feature Rubber is a deadpan meta thriller about a killer tyre, while recent outings such as Deerskin and Mandibles feature giant flies and fashion-obsessed serial killers – but then, at the last second, completing negating it all with hilariously anti-climactic conclusions.

It’s a surrealist method that has baffled and fascinated casual viewers in equal measure, with some expressing frustration and ultimate disdain for being short-changed so abruptly, and others finding it all so oddly amusing that they’re just along for the weird-as-hell ride. As for myself, I find Dupieux’s work to be rather enjoyable, in the sense that he is just doing whatever he wants with all these out-there concepts, even if it means going completely against the “rules” of traditional filmic storytelling, which in a strange way I kind of respect and admire about the guy.

His latest feature, Smoking Causes Coughing, is exactly the kind of movie I expect from Dupieux at this point, and I honestly had a rather good time just getting lost in the light weirdness of it all, even with the knowledge that it is not at all going to win over any sceptics.

The film concerns the exploits of the Tobacco Force, a group of tight-suited superheroes – think Power Rangers if they spoke and at times acted like they’re on an episode of The Boys – known for fighting weird rubbery monsters that look like something William Shatner would have fought in the earlier low-budget days of Star Trek. After their most recent (and shockingly gory) battle, the team – Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi) and Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra) – are ordered by their controller, a rat puppet named Didier (Alain Chabat) with green drool constantly dripping out its mouth, to attend a remote retreat where they are expected to work on their fragile team dynamic, before facing off against their deadly nemesis, the evil Emperor Lizardin (Benoît Poelvoorde) who seeks to destroy the planet.

So, the team works through their difficulties and engages in a big battle at the end, right? You could not be more wrong, and that’s part of what makes Smoking Causes Coughing such an absurdist delight. All the stuff with the Power Rangers-esque heroes named after cigarette ingredients (who, despite their name, are very much against inhaling tobacco because, as per the title, it causes coughing) is a covert framing device for a series of shorts where they try and out-shock each other with wild stories, from a deadly couple’s retreat to a nonchalant encounter with a grinding machine. That’s pretty much the whole movie, only if every now and then it cuts back and forth to deliberately naff costumes and cheesy effects.

I strongly suspect that this will irritate anyone going in expecting a full-on superhero parody instead of what it actually is, and I already know for a fact that the audience I saw this with was utterly baffled judging by how silent they were during a lot of the genuinely funny parts, but I was very amused by how it unapologetically trolls the viewer by refusing to do exactly what’s required of it. Dupieux is a filmmaker who swings both big and small at the same time, introducing some outlandish concepts only to then contain them before they threaten to become any bigger, and with Smoking Causes Coughing he very much leans into this while still making the film itself a strangely intriguing watch with silly and immature humour to rival an early episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The stories being told within the film are filled with tons of pitch-black humour that reads like a Twilight Zone episode if Rod Sterling smoked a joint before stepping onto camera, which hold your attention despite their oddness and their capability of ending very abruptly. Meanwhile, the stuff with the Tobacco Force has plenty of fun absurdist moments like one of them having an inexplicable sexual attraction to their grotesque rat puppet leader, and a functioning supermarket (complete with a human attendant) located within a fridge. There’s even a brief section featuring the film’s villain as he frets about missing a family dinner right as he’s about to press a button to destroy Earth. It’s all incredibly silly stuff, all told with Dupieux’s regular deadpan direction and dialogue that does get a good bit of laughter just from how utterly ridiculous it all is.

Like Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, another recent slice of surreal and somewhat meta auteurism, your enjoyment of Smoking Causes Coughing will depend almost entirely on whether or not you’re willing to just go along for the absurd ride as told by this very particular filmmaker. For my money, I was weirdly enjoying all the strange little tangents that this movie was throwing at me which made it a lot more unpredictable and less conventional, even when at times I honestly had no idea what the point actually was. As with Asteroid City, though, the pointlessness is kind of the point, since Dupieux is just telling this intentionally aimless story (and the stories within this story) because he seems to get a thrill out of telling things how he wants to tell them, without anyone to advise him otherwise. In that sense, I do have a lot of respect for the guy, and even when parts of his films, including this one, don’t always work in the ways in which he intends, there’s still an admirable dedication to expressing his own style of storytelling without conforming to normal practises.

You don’t have to like his methods, nor this film very much, but if you’re able to be open-minded enough to see how Quentin Dupieux sees the world, then you might just find something so weird that it’s more than enough substance.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Smoking Causes Coughing is a highly amusing absurdist comedy that constantly subverts your expectations with framing devices and anti-climactic conclusions that are understandably bound to irritate the more casual viewer, but those who are more open-minded might find some hilariously strange material to feast on.

Smoking Causes Coughing is now showing in cinemas nationwide

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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