Quentin Dupieux is perhaps the most consistently kooky director working today. He’s the guy who made Rubber, about a sentient car tire that goes on a killing spree, and Mandibles, in which two friends try to train a massive fly they discover. His latest, Smoking Causes Coughing, is typically weird and unpredictable. Despite a thin story, it’s also often hysterically funny.
Ostensibly – and you’ll see why I say that in a minute – the film is about a group of superheroes called the Tobacco Force. Their members are Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), and Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra). The opening finds them battling a giant turtle, using their powers to give him explosive cancer. Actually, the villain is a guy in a turtle costume. Visually, this section of Smoking Causes Coughing resembles the old Mighty Morphin Power Rangers show, with the group’s coordinated outfits and the cheesiness of the monster. After the melee is over, their boss, a huge sex-obsessed rat who constantly has green ooze dripping from his mouth, sends the gang on a retreat to improve their cohesion.
They get to a spot near a lake, where a robot chaperone encourages them to relax. Part of that entails telling each other scary stories. At this point, the movie shifts gears, depicting those stories. One involves a woman (Dupieux regular Adele Exarchopoulos) who gets her head stuck in an ominous-looking metal helmet. Another concerns a woman trying to free her nephew from an industrial strength crushing machine his legs have become ensnared in. A third is told from the POV of a fish. Eventually, we get back to the Tobacco Force, who learn a creature named Lézardin intends to annihilate Earth. They have to find a way to prevent this from occurring.
Clearly, you’re either on this movie’s oddball wavelength or you’re not. Dupieux intentionally avoids cohesion. Smoking Causes Coughing is a random assortment of ideas thrown into a blender and turned into a delicious cocktail of insanity. The “plot” starts off in a specific direction, takes an abrupt left turn in a different direction, then returns to the original direction, while still intentionally denying viewers anything remotely approaching resolution. Is there a larger point? Probably not, unless you consider impishly toying with audience expectations to be a point. Knowing the director, it probably is.
So why sit through the film? The answer is simple: payoffs. Every section in the picture has an incredible, hilarious payoff. The battle with the turtle is an exercise in way-over-the-top gore. The lady with the helmet and the fish similarly deliver great cappers. That poor guy in the crusher gets the most audacious payoff, with his arc going to a place so outlandish that you have to wonder what kind of twisted mind could conceive of such a thing in the first place.
Say what you want about Smoking Causes Coughing, but it’s consistently entertaining and never boring. (A brisk 80-minute running time helps.) Quentin Dupieux takes pleasure in making sure you don’t know what to expect from second to second. He’s having a ball tossing all this disparate stuff out there. I had a ball watching it. If you’re in the mood for unapologetic lunacy, you probably will too.
out of four
Smoking Causes Coughing is unrated, but contains language, sexuality, and graphic violence. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.