I’m writing this review as a masked man performs “I’m Your Boogie Man” a few feet away from me. That’s not my typical writing M.O., but it seems appropriate for a film as absurdist as Quentin Dupieux’s Smoking Causes Coughing. John Waters called it “a superhero movie for idiots” when he named it the 9th best film of 2022. Far be it from me to disagree with the Pope of Filth, but between its outrageous tobacco-based premise and its comedic existential crises, I think Dupieux’s newest film is more accurately designated a superhero movie for the severely depressed.
The film ostensibly follows the adventures of the Tobacco Force, “the coolest avengers in the world.” They’re a tokusatsu-style group of superheroes who fight giant turtles and lizard men from outer space. The members — Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), and Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra) — harness the negative powers of tobacco to defeat their enemies. Those defeats are hilariously bloody, with flesh and viscera erupting into an impossibly large blast radius. There’s an underlying sadness to the proceedings, though: barren shooting locations lend an isolated ennui to the film, as does the jazzy, mysterious score. When paired with the existential horrors of the script, the daffy lead performances, and the callous disinterest of the Tobacco Force’s Chief — a misshapen rat puppet voiced by Alain Chabat that constantly drools green goo — the light score feels like mid-century elevator music on your way to purgatory.
The Chief sends the Tobacco Force to a “luxury” getaway (a bunker in the woods with titanium beds) in order to improve their morale. They have a big fight ahead against the dreaded Lézardin (Benoît Poelvoorde), and the team needs to be as cohesive as possible to win the day. The superheroes decide to tell campfire stories as part of their team-building activities. These stories make up a large portion of the film, turning Smoking Causes Coughing into an anthology of discontented dread. The stories focus on the horrors of the body and how terrible humans can be, both to each other and the planet. A “thinking helmet” prompts its wearer to ask: “Why is the mind condemned to be stuck in a deteriorating body?” A fish witnesses humans polluting its lake. An industrial accident leaves a young man in a vulnerable, though oddly painless, position.
Taken together, these vignettes emphasize the dangers of the outside world and the inherent disgust of inhabiting a flesh suit. They’re appropriate, albeit surprising, themes for a Western superhero film. After all, superheroes are always fighting enemies, both earthbound and extraterrestrial, instilling fear in the audience that cosmic threats constantly surround them. If you think very long about the lives of superheroes — people who can stretch their bodies beyond comprehension, phase through solid matter, and run faster than the speed of light — you’re bound to leave the realm of action-adventure and find yourself closer to body horror. Smoking Causes Coughing doesn’t have the budget (or the interest) in showing such CGI theatrics, but it does want to explore humanity’s core grotesqueness, whether it be in our bodies or our souls.
With all that said, Smoking Causes Coughing is very, very funny. Its incongruity and off-the-wall humor keep it from sliding into pure existential despair, and it seems destined for midnight movie showings. Though its overall tone is disquieting, it’s also a wild ride that had me laughing out loud more than once. Whether you’re an idiot, severely depressed, and/or a fan of absurdist cinema, Dupieux’s hilarious and horrifying new film Smoking Causes Coughing is an ironic breath of fresh air.
Smoking Causes Coughing releases in theaters and on demand on March 31, 2023.