As a title, ‘Smoking Causes Coughing,’ is a blunt statement of the obvious. A reflection of the banal tone writer-director (cinematographer-editor extraordinaire) Quentin Dupieux has made his signature. His last two films were about a guy who becomes a killer for the honor of his deerskin coat (2018’s ‘Deerskin’), and two buddies who have a giant fly in their trunk (2021’s ‘Mandibles’). He’s consistently asking his audience to have a smoke and commit to the bit. In ‘Smoking Causes Coughing,’ the “bit” is that there is a group of Power Rangers-style superheroes called The Tobacco Force.
Some people are annoyed when stories don’t go anywhere. This particular outing is a string of non-sequiturs, bone-dry and written in the key of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’ Good thing for Dupieux, I find myself down for a little bit of nothing.
In the spirit of nothingness and banality, we don’t really learn The Tobacco Force’s history, don’t get to know their past. We know that our five heroes — Benzene (Giles Lellouche), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), and Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra) — are the flailing, helmeted group assigned to save the world. Or at least protect us from giant tortoises named “Tortusse” by blowing them into smithereens using their special smoke-manifesting powers.
We know they’re led by a rat-looking boss named Chief Didier — a ragged, womanizing puppet who we accept as a real person. (Speaking of TMNT: this is our Splitter, with a few more human lady loves and a lot more snot.)
And we know they love each other. But after a rocky battle with said “Tortusse,” they find they may have to work on their “group cohesion” before they take on their biggest foe yet: Lézardin, who’s hatching a plan to destroy the planet. He sends them on a retreat to strengthen their dynamic.
Dupieux depicts The Tobacco Force’s journey to the end of the world in sun-washed images, absurd scenarios, and lo-fi effects — puppet buddy Didier, for instance, or robot sidekick Norbet 5000 who rattles along and speaks in a dry monotone, or the explosion of what looks to be raspberry jam as a stand-in for Tortusse guts. It’s all told without a wink.
There’s an old adage, or maybe some comedian said it one time, that all we’re doing every day is filling the time, waiting for the days to pass until our last. It’s cynical and bleak. But we can call ‘Smoking Causes Coughing’ the fun, glass-basically-half-full interpretation of that line.
This retreat of theirs is just a lot of hanging around, finding comfort in futuristic titanium beds and seawater showers. But there’s a hefty portion (the film is less than 80 minutes, mind you) when the team settles in for a smoke around a campfire and tells stories. Bizarre ones. We get a few stories within the story, that is until Lézardin decides sooner than expected to execute his evil plan.
Weird fireside stories won’t help them save the world, but cigarette in hand, they make the wait a lot more worthwhile. A wait for the end of the world, for time to pass, for the damn technology to work. For a fitting end to the story.
‘Smoking Causes Couhging’ hits theaters and on demand March 31, 2023