Quentin Dupieux Delivers a Winningly Idiotic Anthology in Smoking Causes Coughing

Movies Reviews Quentin Dupieux
Quentin Dupieux Delivers a Winningly Idiotic Anthology in Smoking Causes Coughing

For a moviegoing culture wheezing for oxygen—our cinematic alveoli coated with the thick layer of tar naturally occurring when you consume three Marvel movies a year (and a couple DCs, but only if you’ve been drinking)–there is only one recourse. But quitting superhero movies cold turkey seems hard, so French absurdist Quentin Dupieux has generously provided a nicotine gum for the spandex-addicted: Smoking Causes Coughing. After half a decade focusing on high-concept silliness, like the giant-fly tragicomedy Mandibles and the leather-jacket thriller Deerskin, Dupieux follows his more ridiculous impulses by letting the midnight horror anthology stay up until Saturday morning, blending gore and guffaws in an amiable, breezy comedy.

The Tobacco Force, a supergroup of “avengers” empowered by carcinogens, composes the film’s framing ensemble. A Power Rangers-like tokusatsu parody, they are like Dupieux’s Danger 5—a retro satire of form that revels in how desperately adult so much of its juvenile source material is. Where Danger 5 made running gags of the sexism and repetitive plotting of the spy/adventure serial, Smoking Causes Coughing utilizes eye-popping colors and frequent splashes of blood for its heroic team.

It’s a tough time to make even a caricature of the genre. It’s saturated pop culture so deeply that we’re already growing tired of all the R-rated superhero riffs. But Smoking Causes Coughing avoids repeating The Boys or The Suicide Squad’s self-aware jabs at skin-tight costuming, empowered immaturity or mad villain plots by avoiding awareness altogether. Instead, it leans into the low-fi pulp aesthetic of cheapy TV and the bumbling clownishness particular to Dupieux’s brand of comic incompetence. The Tobacco Force isn’t a superhero team cleverly taking the piss out of superhero teams. This is a superhero team so inherently stupid that its idiocy powerwashes your brain, scrubbing away all the normalization that blockbusters have worked tirelessly to achieve. You’re returned, freshly blasted by buffoonery, back to square one, when this all seemed harmlessly stupid instead of all-powerful.

Harmless stupidity is where Dupieux thrives. Smoking Causes Coughing plays to these strengths, being both sublimely silly and unpredictably, addictively light. The comedy flows into and out of its nested stories without a care in the world, feeling like a loose showcase for all the goofy, horror-adjacent ideas Dupieux had over the pandemic. 

After taking a brawl with a human-sized turtle monster to its violent, juicy conclusion, the bickering Tobacco Force—Benzène (Gilles Lellouche), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Mercure (Jean-Pascal Zadi), Ammoniaque (Oulaya Amamra), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier) and their useless robot companion–are sent on a team-building retreat. Funniest among them are the softly pompous Lellouche and pent-up Demoustier, who harbors a crush on the team’s chief (a disgusting, bile-dribbling rat puppet). These minor gross-out gags lead up to the main attraction: Hilariously unscary campfire stories. Because the superheroes spinning these tales are themselves odd, stunted cartoons, their horrific fables are decidedly more absurd than anything else; think Drunk History but for turning the ramblings of a little kid into bloody short films.

One centers on a thought-enhancing helmet that drives its wearer to, logically, attack her doofus friends. Another, told by an inexplicably talking barracuda, involves the best wood chipper joke since Fargo. The common thread linking these tales from the dorkside is slangish, intentionally undercooked dialogue that emphasizes the discord between the gruesome content and childish delivery. Benzène bemoans the others not listening to his “cool suggestion” while characters in the wood chipper story respond to tragedy with “this sucks big time.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Jackass Forever opened with a dick-centering kaiju tribute—the films both possess a lackadaisical, under-the-bottom dedication to their over-the-top influences.

Naturally, Smoking Causes Coughing is too laid back to be much more than a feature-length smoke break from the heavier nonsense on the factory floor. But for those with a surreal sense of humor, hang up the “gone to lunch” sign and enjoy your union-mandated, 80-minute dose of French comedy. Ironically, you might find yourself breathing easier afterwards.

Director: Quentin Dupieux
Writer: Quentin Dupieux
Starring: 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
Release Date: March 31, 2023

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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