Credit: Danielle McCarthy-Boles
by Morris Yang Featured Film Spotlight

Smoking Causes Coughing — Quentin Dupieux

March 31, 2023

Reinventing the superhero genre often entails energizing it, usually with piled-on camp (as with Troma Entertainment’s The Toxic Avenger and, more recently, Marvel’s Deadpool) or pointed critique (as with Eric Kripke’s series The Boys). Typically, the assumption is that the genre needs reinventing because it’s stale, and staleness is a bad thing. But what of jettisoning staleness only to restore it? With neither gaudy bloodlust nor dramatic reversal, Quentin Dupieux’s “Avengers assemble!” moment collapses upon itself, and deliberately so. A loosely construed series of wacky vignettes, Smoking Causes Coughing is calibrated to an uncanny tonal wavelength, entreating eavesdroppers to indulge in the simultaneous exhibition of the comical and the creepy. Think midnight hangout movie, with quasi-stoner philosophy to boot — it’s quite a hoot.

There’s literally a campfire session way past working hours, all for the purpose of building group cohesion. You see, Dupieux’s protagonists this time around aren’t some hapless good-for-nothings, bewildered couples, or killer wheels; they’re the new Toxic Avengers, now branded — in endearingly French fashion — as the Tobacco Force. The quintet of carcinogens (each of them named after one of cigarette smoke’s sightless killers) don Ultraman-style costumes, complete with helmets, and they harness the clouds of their powers for the honorable cause of fighting, no, exploding evil. 

An opening sequence featuring some gawking passers-by witnesses this task force, headed off-site by a talking, acid-drooling rat, ganging up on a rubber kaiju tortoise. With cheeky Gallic irreverence (the playful banter of early Godard with the tongue-in-cheek setup of the OSS 117 films), they finish him off, rinse clean, and head off to a work retreat, the bane of modern capitalism. Camped by a picturesque river and stocked with supplies — a minimart with live-in assistant included — from an über-sleek underground bunker, Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), and Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier) thus prep for their next episode by exchanging horror stories, the stuff of nighttime and existential terrors.

There’s a Thinking Helmet sometime from the 1930s, Cartesian dissociation by way of possible Nazi etiology; a grisly swimming pool murder featuring Adèle Exarchopoulos as a voluptuous housewife; bodily dissociation via grape presser; ecological statement cursorily received; as well as — to justify its superhero veneer — the impending threat of global extermination, courtesy of alien malevolence. But Smoking Causes Coughing also isn’t quite the superhero flick it’s billed as; the loopy director’s sensibilities, here, are trained more toward the superhero anti-movie, with or without political intent. It could be had that the eponymous proposition be taken as less-than-subtle slight against the empty calories of banal military-industrial addictions, sponsored by Feige, Marvel, and Co. It could also be a converse extolling of simple-life virtues: have a smoke in France and drift back to Cold War nostalgia, where bodies and minds were, relative to today and, for the most part, freer to think, make love, procreate. 

That the bulk of the film’s comic horror hinges on some physical mishap, played out to (eagerly expected) absurd proportions, is probably no accident. “God is a smoker of Havanas,” croons Serge Gainsbourg over the title cards; your penchant for coughing, then, relies on how much you believe in Him, or vice versa. As a standalone feature, this already rocks, but further contextualized against whatever capeshit dreck your local cineplexes are putting out, Smoking Causes Coughing is a quietly potent banger.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 10.