Smoking Causes Coughing
by Hope Madden
The narratives of brilliant French filmmaker Claire Denis tend to skip over dramatic highpoints in favor if those moments most filmmakers would ignore. She tells the same story but uses this device to undermine expectations and develop character. In Denis’s hands, it’s a brilliant approach that’s delivered many exceptional films: Trouble Every Day, High Life, 35 Shots of Rum, Let the Sunshine In and so many more.
In his own way, French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux does the same. He certainly does with his latest piece of absurdity, Smoking Causes Coughing, a high concept robbed of its drama and left with Dupieux’s favorite moments. The banal ones.
Costumed avengers Tobacco Force work as a team, each adding their unique gift to a combined weapon strong enough to bring down any enemy – or at least any kaiju in a rubber suit. The whole ordeal is only funnier when the helmets come off and some of the biggest names in French film spend an entire movie dressed like Power Rangers.
Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), Benzene (Gilles Lellouche) and Methanol (Vincent Lacoste) seem to be falling apart. Mercury’s powers were weak last time because he wasn’t sincere enough, and now the Chief (a particularly foul if amorous rat puppet voiced by Alain Chabat) thinks their team lacks cohesion.
And what a time to fall apart! Intergalactic supervillain Lezardin (Benoît Poelvoorde) is planning to eliminate Earth for being uninteresting.
Rather than follow the strategies and preparations, or even the battle itself, Dupieux sets his tale during the weeklong forced retreat where the team builds cohesion and shares campfire stories. The superhero film then becomes, essentially, the framing device for an absurdist’s horror anthology.
What is it all about? The ridiculousness of storytelling, of distracting yourself from life, and the insidious way capitalism influences both your life and your distraction from life?
I have no idea. But if you like Quentin Dupieux movies, you’ll no doubt enjoy this one. It’s less inspired than 2010’s Rubber, less endearing than 2020’s Mandibles. But Smoking Causes Coughing kicks expectations in the ass and has a fine time making moviemaking the butt of its joke.