Originally published on Ink 19 on March 27, 2023
Smoking Causes Coughing
directed by Quentin Dupieux
This past year saw two exceptional comedic features directed by the absurdist talents of French auteur Quentin Dupieux. The first of the two Dupieux films was perhaps the director’s most lovely, yet no less surrealistic effort of his career, Incredible But True. In that film, Dupieux cast the star of so many of his previous efforts, Alain Chabat, as a middle-aged man (also named Alain) who strives to own a country home where he and his wife Marie can spend the latter part of their lives together. A modest goal indeed, but as expected in a Dupieux film, Alain and Marie’s newly purchased home also possesses a time-shifting basement portal that allows its subjects to travel forward in time by a half-day, while reversing their age by three days in the process.
This otherwise miraculous facet of what should be a quaint retirement chalet for this aging pair carries little interest for Alain, for he is comfortable in his own skin and only longs for a good day of fishing by the creek and evenings dining and chatting with his wife. Unfortunately, the appeal of regained youth fervently compels Marie to plunge herself through the magical gate again and again, leaving Alain as the concerned and bewildered husband of a woman who is vainly and haphazardly hurling herself back towards her teenage years as she tries to avoid her own mortality.
With Smoking Causes Coughing, Chabat is again placed as the grounded center of a Dupieux film where he portrays a character who is comfortable in his own skin, but, this time, that skin is the gray pelt of a hedonistic, woman-chasing, and green slime drooling rat named Didier who doles out the assignments to the Tobacco Force, a squad of superhero-clad kaiju fighters knighted with the names and powers of the most deadly of ingredients found in an average lung rocket: Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), and Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier).
When we are first exposed to the Tobacco Force, the team is in action, laying waste to a human-sized Gamera clone called the Tortusse with streams of their powerful cancer-causing agents dispensed Ultraman-style to our nuclear reptile. After an absurd battle, the deluge of carcinogens takes its toll on the monster, who in turn bathes our heroes in its viscera. Now, with evil foiled, a vacationing family that has witnessed the carnage from afar requests a cheery photo with our wholesome combatants, who gleefully oblige before heading off to interface with Chief Didier to receive their next assignment: a much-needed team retreat to a cabin in the woods, but with the archetypal cabin here replaced by a sterile, modernist fortress/bunker instead.
As in Incredible But True, natural surroundings provide the launching pad from where our protagonists can access their true selves in Smoking Causes Coughing. On the first night of their retreat, our squeaky clean quintet partakes in the camping tradition of telling scary stories by the fire and, in doing so, have a chance to indulge in the contemporary need for real-life violence (albeit, here, abundantly surrealistic) as a form of entertainment. This familiar setting breaks down the facade of the team and reveals who they are to each other and themselves beyond the confines of their ’60s-kaiju-battle-inspired uniforms.
After coaxing the other members of the Tobacco Force to allow him to take the campfire stage, Benzene tells the first of the comically horrific stories in Smoking Causes Coughing. He regales his teammates with the tale of an innocuous couples weekend that takes a bloody turn when a vintage “thinking” helmet is found that allows its wearer to finally have lucid thoughts — ones that allow the wearer to see her husband and friends as the pointless bores they really are, and thus, unworthy of another breath. Next, a freshly caught barracuda, in the midst of being grilled, shares the story of a wood chipper accident where the victim, who is reduced to just a pair of talking lips floating in a gelatinous pool of his remaining fluids and flesh, is fairly unbothered by his newly transformed state.
As each story plays out, we see through the response from the Tobacco Force that the apathy towards the extremes that encompass the world of the film’s era — one which by all accounts could be set somewhere between the ’60s and today — is clearly entrenched in our psyche. In fact, our numbness to everything here on Earth is further underscored when a somewhat domesticated Ming the Merciless figure named Lézardin, Emperor of Evil (Benoît Poelvoorde, from Dupieux’s 2019 film, Keep an Eye Out), seeks to destroy our planet because it’s not that appealing anymore, and the mighty Tobacco Force can do little to stop their galactic foe.
Through the execution of this fantastical setup, Dupieux has again creatively and entertainingly reduced our day-to-day existence to what it has become for most: an endless buffet of pointless narratives and vices that distract us from the inevitable forces of our reality. So whether you’re the Tobacco Force fighting ambiguously evil monsters or the rat form of Alain Chabat in Smoking Causes Coughing, who needs a constant flux of libidinous escapades as a form of affirmation, or even the loving husband form of Alain Chabat in Incredible But True, who is satisfied with enjoying the small moments of life, at least you’re doing something, as opposed to most of us, who have grown accustomed to sitting in our boxes and simply watching while we wait for some proverbial end.
Feature photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing
Lily and Generoso Fierro