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Is it possible to wander into a Quentin Dupieux movie in 2023 without knowing to expect the European version of Adult Swim’s stoner dada surrealism? I doubt it and am willing to bet that that’s part of what makes “Smoking Causes Coughing,” Dupieux’s latest high-concept comedy, such a winning showcase for his brand of go-nowhere humor.
“Smoking Causes Coughing” follows the Tobacco Force, a group of tokusatsu-style superheroes whose colorful outfits and team dynamic bring to mind the Power Rangers and Captain Planet’s Planeteers. Within a few minutes, the Tobacco Force blow up a turtle monster named Tortusse. They then go on a team-building retreat at the suggestion of their leader, a talking rat puppet. The Tobacco Force’s camping trip soon devolves into a pile-on of inexplicable and frequently interrupted plot twists, tall tales, and flights of fancy. There’s a lot of dead air and every time a character tries to distinguish themselves beyond juvenile gags about sex or violence, Dupieux, who wrote, directed, and shot “Smoking Causes Coughing,” abruptly changes his focus.
If you’re watching “Smoking Causes Coughing,” there’s a fair chance you know that Dupieux’s the guy who directed “Rubber,” the 2010 oddity about a murderous sentient car tire. Since then, Dupieux’s produced a recognizable body of work, including “Deerskin,” about a possessed deerskin jacket, and “Mandibles,” which concerns two guys and a giant fly. Dupieux used to make overly precious electronic music as Mr. Oizo. Now he makes movies like “Smoking Causes Coughing,” which is weird and relaxed in ways that have become authentic to the filmmaker.
You might still come across “Smoking Causes Coughing” without any knowledge or interest in Dupieux or his post-Theater of the Absurd humor. Maybe you like superheroes or surreal, low-brow humor. In any case, to enjoy “Smoking Causes Coughing,” you have to want to periodically trick yourself into believing that it’s a more sensible movie than it is, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.
For starters, the Tobacco Force are not pro-smoking superheroes. Instead, they advise children never to pick up the habit, even though their superpowers are named after various elements found in cigarettes, like Nicotine (Anais Demoustier) and Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra). At the beginning of the movie, the Tobacco Force gives Tortusse cancer, which causes him to explode in very slow motion; a hail of blood and guts coats everything, especially the Tobacco Force, but also a family of civilian bystanders. Our heroes get hosed off by Norbert (voiced by Ferdinand Canaud), a tiny robot that looks like Paulie’s birthday robot from “Rocky IV.” And then their rodent boss, Didier (comedian Alain Chabat), gives the team orders via video phone calls that he initiates from his bedroom. The rat drools green ooze whenever he talks but is sexually irresistible somehow.
There’s no real character, plot, or thematic development in “Smoking Causes Coughing.” There are, however, various scenes where characters stop each other mid-thought in order to tell an amusing story that just came to mind. In one scene, which becomes several vignettes, campfire stories are exchanged, first among the Tobacco Force members and then at one point by Josette (Thémis Terrier-Thiebaux), a little girl who wanders by.
As time passes, the filmmakers rely less and less on their already flimsy narrative hook. The stories and storytellers within the movie constantly step on each other’s toes, and the main joke never really changes, despite some amusing variations: there’s no way to plan for the future if nobody’s responsible for anything. That sliver of a conceit is also maybe accommodating enough to reward Dupieux’s fans.
That said, you don’t need to know what you’re looking at or even like the movie’s deadpan sensibility in order to enjoy whatever Dupieux throws on-screen. Sometimes, characters bring up details that call each other’s behavior into question, like when Ammonia asks Nicotine how she could enjoy kissing Didier given the omnipresent slime dripping from his mouth. (“It could be detergent ... or acid.”) Some supporting characters also resist becoming further involved in the movie, like the laborer (Max Renard) who, in one of the fantastic stories within the story, tells his boss (Blanche Gardin) that he simply cannot help her to pull her nephew (Anthony Sonigo) out of a wood-chipper. I could explain that last bit further, but I’d rather not.
“Smoking Causes Coughing” moves unhurriedly from moment to moment, which makes its perpetually strung-out jokes even funnier. The movie’s scenario mutates and collapses whenever Dupieux decides it should, and by now, his collaborators know how to deliver what he’s looking for, whether it’s Justine Pearce’s knowingly garish and unflattering superhero costumes or Oliver Alfonso’s credible monsters and special effects. “Smoking Causes Coughing” works because Dupieux’s already been here and done similar things before. This is just a superior collection of shaggy dog jokes.
Now playing in theaters and available on demand.
Gilles Lellouche as Benzène
Vincent Lacoste as Méthanol
Anaïs Demoustier as Nicotine
Jean-Pascal Zadi as Mercure
Oulaya Amamra as Ammoniaque
David Marsais as Jacques
Adèle Exarchopoulos as Céline