Smoking Causes Coughing


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

Keep An Eye Out


Originally published on Ink 19 on March 3, 2021

Keep An Eye Out
directed by Quentin Dupieux

The hard-boiled American cop film reached its maximum gritty effect in the 1970s through the reckless exploits of the likes of the Sheriff Buford Pussers and Inspector Callahans, and with their immense popularity, the inevitable occurred—versions of these characters began appearing overseas in the plots of wildly violent poliziotteschi, better known as Euro-crime films. Offering a harder edge to counter the tan corduroy clad/soft rock Me generation, these Hollywood films and their imitators provided an endless array of exceedingly macho antics from peace officers, whose glaring ultra-macho behavior made for fertile ground for director Bertrand Blier and his surrealistic, comedic take on the crime genre, Buffet Froid.

For this abstractly dark and ferociously funny 1979 feature, Blier tapped his own father, veteran actor Bernard Blier, who had a long and storied career of portraying both hood and Gendarme, and teamed him up with France’s answer to Roy Scheider, Gerard Depardieu. Paired together as cop and suspected murderer respectively, Bernard and Gerard irreverently poked holes into crime film while simultaneously performing a societal gut check on the state of masculinity at the closing of the 1970s. In fact, throughout his entire career, Blier grossly and cleverly exaggerated the actions of his male lead characters and genre tropes to draw attention to the ridiculous attitudes of the day. Sensitive males were often reduced to sheepish cuckolds, while the dominant males were forced to take an ego trip that spun them out of control to identities somewhere between marauding beast and pretentious pseudo-intellectual, which usually left them either facile, insane, or dead. Blier was the perfect comedic director for that era, as he took aim at mainstream Hollywood’s depiction of leading men like Oliver Barrett IV or Mr. Majestyk.

In 2010, France’s heir apparent to Blier emerged when director Quentin Dupieux gave life to a serial killer car tire named Robert in his genre-destroying third feature, Rubber. Released during a time when any out-of-the-norm script brought to screen was haphazardly labeled as “Kaufmanesque,” Dupieux’s Rubber was praised, but wrongly classified in the Charlie Kaufman file. As his subsequent films would further bear out, Dupieux’s work explored much of the same ground as his forefather, Blier, and with a similar level of audacity, but by leaving France for the States, Dupieux sought to strike at the very heart of the Hollywood system that created many of the established film archetypes for men, right in its own home turf.

Rubber was followed up in 2012 by Wrong, a feature where Dupieux applied a healthy dose of the absurd to deconstruct the “lonely man with the trusty pet” film that was so popular in the 70s. 2013’s Wrong Cops distilled the classic ensemble L.A. police drama into ludicrous slices of cops on the loose mania, slathered with a thick glaze of Tim and Eric-style ickiness. Reality, in 2014, effectively looped five minutes of a Philip Glass score to amplify the monotonous futility behind a French director’s quest to make a Hollywood film that no one wants and that he might have apparently already made.

During his sojourn in the States, Dupieux tore through our filmmaking traditions as he developed some inventive visual themes of his own, which included multiple animals being utilized as goody bags and spy cameras, hulking men attempting to be masculine whilst attired in stained boyish tighty whities, and our idyllic safe little homes morphing into big scary question marks. Quentin did indeed have some fun here, but perhaps it was time for him to go home and pick on French cinema for a while.

Amazingly, 2018’s Au Poste! (Keep An Eye Out), which is finally enjoying a full virtual U.S. release this week, is Dupieux’s first feature length film shot in his native land. At the film’s lean 73 minute center is the classic seventies squad room interrogation setup where the highly domesticated, but heavily mustached Fugain (Grégoire Ludig) must endure the repetitive questions of Commissioner Buron (Benoît Poelvoorde), who suspects Fugain of murder after he foolishly reports the discovery of a dead body outside of his eerily quiet apartment building. I should stop here to write that as far as 70s squad rooms go, Dupieux’s set designer and wife, Joan Le Boru, has made this one a real gem, as it is expertly stocked with clanky oversized typewriters, hundreds of flickering fluorescent overhead lights, and pop-ins from polyester attired cops who look like they haven’t had a decent wink in weeks. It’s a bleak scene for the sleepy and hungry Fugain, who is forced to stay in his seat and regale Buron with multiple forced retellings of his boring evening at home with his sleepwalking wife which led up to his encounter with the corpse in question.

As Fugain’s stories repeatedly send the viewers for trips back to his poorly lit hovel, I was quickly reminded of Depardieu’s soulless, Brutalist apartment complex that provided the perfect dystopian setting for the random criminality and innumerous keystone cops’ shenanigans seen in the middle of Buffet Froid. In Keep An Eye Out, though, we have only keystone cop, Philippe (Marc Fraize), a one-eyed, ultra-paranoid hapless detective who commits a devastating blunder in Buron’s absence that Fugain will most likely be blamed for in the end. After Buron returns, Philippe is gone, and Fugain starts his testimony again, but with a sort of fear-induced and sleep and hunger deprived logic that leads to appearances from Philippe, as well as Philippe’s doting wife, into Fugain’s memories as he tries to articulate them yet again to Buron. As we watch Fugain struggle to keep his composure as his stories and current reality get interrupted with increasingly bizarre moments, we laugh as our curiosity grows, and we ponder his outcome.

In his previous film, Reality, Dupieux used his protagonist’s dreams to determine the direction of the narrative, but in Keep An Eye Out, we get the inverse, as Dupieux experiments with the way that the present plays into Fugain’s memory. Yet, despite their differing approaches, both films stress the futility of the practice of repackaging and repurposing known devices in cinema, with Dupieux, like Blier before him, twisting all of those elements that you’ve seen before, waving them loudly in front of you, and then pulling them apart or away, so that in the end, you have no choice but to laugh.

Keep An Eye Out opens on VOD on March 5th through the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in multiple other independent theaters across the U.S.

Generoso Fierro