Review: French Absurdist Quentin Dupieux Returns with a Silly, Satisfying Satire in Smoking Causes Coughing

There is nothing quite like heading into the creative mind of Quentin Dupieux, a filmmaker known for quirky, sharp indies like Rubber, about a homicidal car tire, and Deerskin, about a man’s borderline inappropriate obsession with his favorite deerskin coat. The director’s latest, Smoking Causes Coughing, is just as absurd as ever; it’s also witty, funny and surprisingly poignant as a ragtag group of offbeat heroes fight to keep the world from seemingly inevitable destruction.

The central premise of the film—a group of chemical-named heroes fight monsters by blasting carcinogenic gasses at their enemies—is never explained or established in any way; we’re just meant to jump right into this weird alternate world and take it at face value—which, in Dupieux’s hands, we happily do. This group—Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste) and Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier)—are famous to a certain degree, as seen in the film’s early scenes when a family on a road trip stops to see the group in the midst of their latest battle. It’s as silly as it is gross. Classic Dupieux.

The battle doesn’t go as well as planned though, and their commander (a rat puppet?!) decides to get the group back on track with a retreat to the woods, where the film takes a slight (and again, silly) divergence into scary stories told around the campfire. But their idyllic getaway is disrupted when the villain of all villains, Lézardin, vows to destroy planet Earth…just because? There’s an AI robot, a bunker with a refrigerator that opens into a convenience store, and so much more in this 80-minute absurdist adventure that in the end just makes it even funnier.

Several of the cast here will look familiar to fans of French cinema, from Lacoste (Lost Illusions) to Lellouche (“Call My Agent,” Tell No One) to a welcome (and dramatic) cameo by Adèle Exarchopoulos herself. It’s an ensemble comedy where no one actor outshines any of the others, and the rapport among both the Tobacco Force, as they’re known, as well as the players in the campfire story vignettes, is warm and easy. The quips come quickly, and the familiarity among these friends is rich and believable. It all makes Dupieux’s unconventional approach to comedy and satire that much more entertaining. This is a filmmaker who knows who he is, what he has to say and how to say it with a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Smoking Causes Coughing is now playing in theaters, including at Music Box Theatre.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone