Smoking Causes Coughing: a poker-faced sci-fi spoof from French prankster Quentin Dupieux

Quentin Dupieux’s tangential, oddball comedy about a jaded superhero collective named the Tobacco Force indulges in absurdism for its own sake.

Smoking Causes Coughing (2022)

It’s the end of the world as he knows it, and Quentin Dupieux feels fine. The threat of impending sci-fi apocalypse is just one more genre trope for the French prankster to underplay in his latest poker-faced satire, whose title, Smoking Causes Coughing, suggests self-consciously lowered stakes. Introduced dispatching a giant mutant turtle via toxic suffocation – the end result of spraying him with various chemicals used in cigarette production – the members of the superhero collective Tobacco Force seem worn down by their job. Posing for photos with a young (and turtle-blood-soaked) fan, elder statesman Benzene (Gilles Lellouche) is clearly going through the motions; Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi) longs to see his kids. And Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier) pines for the team’s boss, Chef Didier, who happens to be a desk-bound, anthropomorphic rat puppet whose teeth drip with green bile.

And so, as Kurt Vonnegut once put it, it goes. In response to this malaise, Didier orders the team to a nearby lakeside retreat, where they are to rest before confronting an even more dangerous galactic supervillain who has planet-destroying technology. Rather than winding down, however, the team members stay up swapping scary stories, plunging themselves (and us) into embedded, Buñuelian narratives whose relationship to the main action is tangential and discreetly charming.

As a cultural critic, Dupieux – who keeps putting out electronic music under his nom de plume Mr. Oizo – isn’t exactly a finger-on-the-pulse guy. While Smoking Causes Coughing burlesques the 21st-century vogue for superhero movies, its reference points are totally 90s, with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to the fore. He’s also backed off from the creepy, implicative satire of Deerskin (2019), which prodded the relationship between sociopathy and cinephilia. Here, as in the underseen Mandibles (2020), which spoofed creature features and buddy comedies, he seems more concerned with absurdism for its own sake.

The good news is that the material and the execution are slyly inspired. The bad news is that the vibes are so relaxed and ultimately consequenceless that they gradually metastasise into boredom, even at a slimline 75 minutes. The promise of a movie whose star Avengers tout progressive values while downplaying their corporate backing is real, but expecting a director whose greatest gift is his lack of attention span to actually follow through is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kudos to Dupieux for making movies mostly to amuse himself and the loyal, curious viewership that’s on his wavelength. For everybody else out there, no harm done.

 ► Smoking Causes Coughing arrives in UK cinemas on 7 July.