Fumer fait tousser
starring Anaïs Demoustier, Gilles Lellouche, Jean-Pascal Zadi, Oulaya Amamra
written and directed by Quentin Dupieux
by Walter Chaw French provocateur Quentin Dupieux's eleventh film Smoking Causes Coughing is an anthology picture organized around a framing device in which five costumed idiots forced to go on a team-building retreat tell each other horrifying tales around a campfire. I've been decidedly lukewarm on Dupieux's films. They're the very definition of an acquired taste, and I suspect they're hit-or-miss even if you're dialled into their frequency. His best-known film is probably Rubber (2010), a creature-feature about a car tire that causes folks' heads to explode using "telepathy." That's the punchline to the long setup of a tire rolling around to tense music, which Dupieux punctuates with dialogue that's knowingly campy, dedicatedly stupid, and ramped up with vein-bulging sincerity. It's the kind of conceit that attracts viewers who like to laugh at movies. I think Dupieux's sense of humour relies a lot on exaggeration and repetition, with the former landing like grossly performative sarcasm and the latter like the most irritating person you know milking a joke until the doggedness itself becomes the joke. For the most part, Dupieux's movies don't think much of the genres they're mocking and, by extension, they don't think much of the audiences for them, either.
That I like Smoking Causes Coughing may have more to do with my predilections and preferences than with it being that much of a departure from Dupieux's past work. It opens with the Power Rangers-like "Tobacco Force" battling a guy in a turtle suit and emerging victorious after coalescing their specific cigarette-ingredient powers ("Benzine!" "Mercury!") on their quarry, causing a fatally explosive cancer. It's preachy in an ancient way, the punchline delivered by Benzene (Gilles Lelouche) to an adoring fan when he tells a kid to take a good look at his dad over there, smoking. "He doesn't look cool," Benzine says. "He looks like an idiot. Smoking causes coughing." There's a lot going on here: a critique of the essential ridiculousness of superhero movies, along with a sharp rebuke of their self-importance; an attack on a gaffed fandom incapable of critical distance from the objects of their adoration; even a lampoon of the laziness that has infiltrated the creation and execution of schedule-driven product. These tactics don't work for me when the target is horror--but they seem to be just the tonic when applied to the literary crimes of the MCU/DCEU. In fact, I don't know whether it's technically satire if its exaggerations are often less dire than the reality.
The Force's handler is Chef Didier (voiced by Alain Chabat), a rough-looking rat puppet leaking antifreeze out its mouth on whom Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier) has an inexplicable crush--and who deems it necessary for his Avengers to spend a little quality time together camping. This leads to one story about a woman who puts on a felt welder's helmet while on a couples' retreat and, in the sudden quiet and solitude of her enclosed space, realizes her husband and friends are intolerable and so decides to murder them, and another where a young man gets caught in a wood-chipper and is in a surprisingly philosophical mental space about it. The absurdity is the point. The targets of that absurdity are relational melodramas like A Bigger Splash and stories of spinster aunts who find surrogate children late in their lonesome lives. They're genres ripe for the skewering, but the film doesn't hit its stride again until it returns to its framing story, with its tediously existential stakes, rote time-travel conceit, and adorable robot sidekick--which, in this iteration, turns out to be glitchy as hell and somehow bad at math. Add a post-credits sequence that denies a sense of closure in a perfectly-frustrating way, and Smoking Causes Coughing resolves as the closest a film has come in a long time to nailing the cheeky-asshole vibe of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Honestly, I'd be happy if it just turned out to be the Walk Hard of superhero movies.