Smoking Causes Coughing

Smoking Causes Coughing (Fumer fait tousser) (2022)

Smoking Causes Coughing had its UK première at the Glasgow FrightFest 2023. First published by VODzilla.co

Quentin Dupieux’s Smoking Causes Coughing opens with a young viewer. A boy (Tanguy Mercier) who has gone to the side of the road for a pee while out driving with his parents is attracted by a strange sound. So he gets his father’s binoculars and watches a strange conflict going on in the stone quarry below, as a giant shuriken-throwing tortoise fights it out with a quintet of high-kicking folk dressed in matching tracksuits and helmets. “The Tobacco Force, dad! Fuck! Just down there, incredible!,” the boy tells his puzzled father (David Marsais), adding, “Forget it, you don’t understand. Coolest avengers in the world!”

This boy – a fanboy – is the ideal viewer for the sort of tokusatsu team that these five fearless fighters represent. For the Tobacco Force is the kind of luridly colour-coded ensemble – think Ultraman, or Super Sentai, or its American adaptation Power Rangers – who have been doing battle with cheap rubber-suited kaiju for the entertainment of children over the last half a century of television. 

Yet the Tobacco Force is peculiarly inappropriate for children. These five improbable defenders of Earth – Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Mercure (Jean-Pascal Zadi), Ammoniaque (Oulaya Amamra) and their leader Benzène (Gilles Lellouche) – are schlubby, foul-mouthed, and all named for the toxic components of cigarettes. Indeed their special combination power move not only makes their monstrous enemy die of cancer, but also bloodily explode, showering its insides over the watching boy and his parents (“the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” comments the boy, covered from head to toe in gore). Even the title of the film that features them is a literal health warning. “We’re all anti-cigarette,” Benzène insists to the boy, “We’ve never smoked in our lives, never” – although Benzène’s salubrious assurances will later turn out to be false. Meanwhile their chief Didier (voiced by Alain Chabat) is a giant talking rat, not unlike the one who heads the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – except that this rat constantly drools, and has a number of sexual partners.

As with his previous films like Rubber (2010), Keep An Eye Out! (2018), Deerskin (2019) and Incredible But True (2022), here writer/director/editor/cinematographer Dupieux concocts a funny-weird metacinematic world of ordinary-seeming slackers in extraordinary, absurdist scenarios, and constantly trounces the viewer’s expectations with wild misdirection and surreal turns. As Didier sends the Tobacco Force off on a lakeside retreat to work on their ‘group cohesion’, all in preparation for their next assignment against the world-destroying alien Lézardin (Benoît Poelvoorde), Benzène points out that he is not worried given that the Tobacco Force seems never to lose and may in effect be invincible. So, their team-building efforts interrupted and rendered pointless, they instead share a series of supposedly scary campfire stories. Benzène himself tells the first of these stories – a cautionary, obviously reflexive tale about the deadly dangers to a group of individualism, introspection and overthinking. Just don’t overthink it…

Mercure’s eagerness to tell the next story is disrupted by the arrival of a young girl, Josette (Thémis Terrier-Thiebaux), at the camp. After Benzène shows her tablet footage of another gory Tobacco Force battle, Josette critiques the ‘rubber monster’ for being ‘mushy’ and the fight for being ‘crap’, effectively dismissing the premise of the entire film that we are watching, and then tells her own, super-short story about the horrors of pollution from the perspective of a fish. Picking up this theme and rolling with it, the next story in the film is told by a talking barracuda as it is being cooked for the team – like the dying fish that narrates the whole of Denis Villeneuve’s Maelström (2000). Yet the fish is cooked before its story – of an aunt and her nephew who accepts his horrific and compounding injuries with as much hilarious sangfroid as the fishy, frying narrator – can reach a proper conclusion (much as the film itself ends not in closure but rather in suspense).

Amid all these red herrings and narrative feints, where any element in the film – including Lézardin’s climactic assault on Earth – is readily interrupted by the vicissitudes of everyday life, the distractions of family and the demands of love, Smoking Causes Coughing is a shaggy dog story that takes neither its status as a tokusatsu, nor indeed the anthology format that soon replaces this, remotely seriously. Rather it is an unstable, mercurial work, leaping desultorily from one form to another and impossible to pin down. Ultimately it leaves the Tobacco Force smoking together as they wait for a promised ‘era change in progress’ to finish – but really these five are already lost in time, between eras in an outmoded genre, with their adult antics better suited (but still barely fitting) for a younger generation. The results will appeal to the child in any arrested viewer – which guarantees unhealthy, addictive pleasures for us dumb-assed devotees of Dupieux. 

strap: Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist tokusatsu pastiche has a quintet of masked avengers fighting monsters and swapping stories

© Anton Bitel