Vigilante Shanty: Kooky Becomes Dupieux in Latest Whimsy
Quentin Dupieux’s penchant for absurdity shows no signs of abating, with Smoking Causes Coughing, the latest offering of his perennial output, perhaps being his most unruly film yet. Like the bombed out remnants of a hokey children’s television show dangled upon Dupieux’s favored adult repressions and anxieties, there’s much to enjoy in this compounded scenario of stories even when it has the tendency to flatline. Unfortunately, there’s nothing truly substantive lurking behind its cheesy, plastic exteriors.
It’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers meets Charlie’s Angels meets a children’s anti-smoking campaign, but Smoking Causes Coughing never really ascends to the pinnacle of these possibilities, if mostly because we spend a bit too much time with the rather unalluring members of Tobacco Force. Their novelty quickly wears off, each named for a toxic substance used in cigarettes while they combat people wearing giant plastic yokai costumes destined for gory explosions. Benzene (Gilles Lellouche) seems to be the senior member of the group, as his younger male cohorts are a bit more hapless, including Methanol (Vincent Lacoste) and Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi, who also starred in Final Cut from Michel Hazanavicius).
As usual, Dupieux’s particular brand of magic works best with his female characterizations, with Anais Demoustier (a frequent Dupieux presence) and Oulaya Amamra pulling focus as Nicotine and Ammonia, both supposedly sexually obsessed with the disgusting Chief Didier (voiced by Dupieux regular Alain Chabat). Chief Didier nets most of the laugh time in Smoking, a sewer rat hand puppet oozing what appears to be viscous nuclear waste who always has a voluptuous human female waiting in bed for him. It appears group camaraderie is in need of repair, so Chief Didier orders them to attend a work retreat, which ends up being a sedgy looking lake with mysterious sleeping quarters outfitted with a refrigerator supermarket (where Marie Bunel, of Deerskin, pops up). Their pet robot, Norbert, self-destructs upon arrival at their work vacay, while the latest version of his model arrives with some glitches.
What’s left is a raided husk of an anthology film, where the Tobacco Force bonding exercise leads to scary stories around a campfire and generating a Creepshow type set of framed tales, one of which is narrated by a dying barracuda roasting on an oven range. In there, we have Adele Exarchopoulos (returning to Dupieux duty after her outrageous characterization in Mandibules, 2020) and Doria Tillier as the more interesting personalities about a dangerous thinking cap, and then the usually funny Blanche Gardin as a callous aunty whose nephew gets ground up to bits in a wood chipper at her sawmill. Meanwhile, the end of the world is nigh thanks to an evil being named Lazardin (Benoit Poelvoorde, another Dupieux familiar, who has little to do).
Arguably, there’s less to analyze here than in some of Dupieux’s more provocative offerings, but Smoking Causes Coughing might be suggesting the end of the world is always a possibility, so being authentic and realistic about needs and feelings would be helpful for everyone. But it’s really just a weird Quentin Dupieux film one should be in the mood for to fully appreciate its little eccentricities, which, added together, don’t quite make a cohesive film rather than a mildly amusing one.