Smoking Causes Coughing

***1/2

Reviewed by: Nikola Jovic

Smoking Causes Coughing
"There is a complete disregard for any kind of consequence or continuity in this film, and you know that the rug could be pulled from under you at any second." | Photo: Courtesy of KVIFF

There is a joke about the French that they’re the absolute best at turning every failure into a success story. Your cheese is getting moldy, just declare ‘blue cheese’ a new invention and call it a day. Your wine didn’t turn out all right? That’s because it’s actually champagne? Your fiction feature film is an unfocused mess? Well, it’s an absurdist loose anthology movie with a soft spot for early Nineties schlock; it’s supposed to be that way. Right? There may be no merit behind any of these prejudices, but you can bet on one thing: Smoking Causes Coughing. The absurdist director Quentin Dupieux, after less than a year from his previous movie, Incredible But True, returns to his Rubber roots, with 77 minutes of cynical humour that will split the audience, either leaving them in stitches, or making them leave before the one-hour mark.

To summarise the story is to miss the point. Loosely, it’s a narrative coat rack, revolving around a Power Rangers-like group of “superhero avengers” called Tobacco Force. Although they’re against smoking, their naming scheme is based on cigarette ingredients, including Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Ammoniaque/Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste) and Mercure (Jean-Pascal Zadi). Just like Power Rangers have their Zordon, Tobacco Force has their mentor in Chef Didier (Alain Chabat), a promiscuous Splinter-like rat-puppet — who after their successful battle, sends them on a mission.

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Tobacco Force are sent on a sort of coworking seminar where they’re supposed to work on their group cohesion so they can be ready once the almighty Lezardin (Jules Dhios Francisco) attacks. This setup is then used as a rack onto which a lot of different stories can be hung, from a thinking helmet that splits your mind from your body, to a story about toxic waste, or a body horror wood-mill story. This could be considered an anthology if we’re generous, but it’s just bizarrely episodic in a typical Dupieux fashion, testing your assumptions until you either surrender to the film's bizarre logic and have the time of your life, or ultimately just end up being alienated.

Smoking causes coughing, in a way, sounds like one of those warnings you would get on a pack of cigarettes, but it’s the mildest and benign phrase of caution you could use. Who cares about coughing when it’s so good, right? The same could be said of the film as well. There is a complete disregard for any kind of consequence or continuity in this film, and you know that the rug could be pulled from under you at any second. An after-credits Marvelesque scene, and the fact that it’s about a group of superheroes, could have you thinking that it is just that. It’s more of an anti-superhero film or a cheeky criticism of how the saviours of people most of the time end up destroying much of the city with total disregard for human life.

The film’s line-jumping camera, along with the campy gore details and Roger Cormanesque cheapness, as well as the ensemble of France’s most prestigious actors, all seem to be along for the joke. Is it about superheroes, team-building culture, Cartesian mind/body split, toxic waste, self-acceptance or anything else? It doesn’t matter really. Just don’t smoke.

Reviewed on: 26 Jul 2022
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Tobacco Force are superhero avengers, preparing for their clash with the mighty Lezardin. But what if the real horrors are the stories they tell to each other along the way?

Festivals:

Karlovy 2022

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