The Meandering Pleasures Of Smoking Causes Coughing

Quentin Dupieux’s superhero satire has some interesting moments but is not the gut-busting comedy classic that you might have expected.

Quentin Dupieux’s Smoking Causes Coughing arrives in cinemas – and then onto the usual platforms – with a great deal of hype from festival and preview audiences. And I mean a great deal – to hear people talk about the film, you might expect it to be a non-stop laugh-riot, the sort that has never been seen before. To be fair, I imagine that if you watched the film with an audience – an audience that has come to the film fully expecting it to be hilarious and perhaps with whatever chemical or herbal enhancements they require to make it so, and one that is fully aware of and down with Dupieux’s very practised eccentricity – then it really will be the funniest thing imaginable.

People say that horror is the genre that works best when seen in a crowd that will respond to every shock and send that response rippling throughout the auditorium in ways that someone sitting alone at home simply won’t experience, but it is surely comedy that needs that crowd response – laughter is infectious and what might seem mildly amusing when watched alone or even with a handful of friends will become hysterically funny when you have a crowd egging itself on. In a way, it’s rather like the claims that certain films have to be seen on the big screen – not just any old cinema screen anymore, but an Imax screen to fully appreciate the otherwise empty spectacle of the latest superhero blockbuster. It’s an interesting question to consider – which response is the more authentic, the more genuine? Given that most films will now only briefly see the inside of a cinema, is the reaction of an audience an accurate gauge of quality or simply a circle-jerk?

As it turns out, I sat and watched Smoking Causes Coughing alone (well, technically; Mrs R began watching with me and then bailed due to tiredness) on a television screen, which we might argue suits the material more than the big screen, given that this is primarily a satire of TV shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, spiced up with an adult sense of humour that might be seen as crass and offensive if we didn’t know that Dupieux was in on the joke. I’m never quite sure about the people who can get away with wildly un-PC comedy with a nod and a wink and a ‘we’re just mocking these attitudes, not wallowing in them’ claim. I think Dupieux is more honest and smarter and less dubiously gleeful about saying the unsayable than someone like Seth MacFarlane and his films are a lot better as a result. But nevertheless, this film does feel very slight and the jokes a bit obvious. Nothing wrong with that, I should add – I’m as tired of ‘elevated’ comedy as I am of ‘elevated’ horror. Comedy should be funny but far too many writers and producers these days seem to view that as selling out.

The Power Rangers satire of this film is pretty spot-on, if perhaps obvious – the idea of a superhero force saving the Earth from assorted monstrous and extraterrestrial threats is ripe for mockery, with a collective familiarity with those 1980s and 1990s shows driving the satire without anyone having to try too hard. The fun conceit here is that Tobacco Force is a group of heroes named after cigarette-related materials – Nicotine, Menthol and the like – who kill their opponents through Cancer power. Unfortunately, the group are beginning to become a dysfunctional unit and so are sent on a retreat by their boss, a drooling rat called Didier who is inexplicably cat-nip for the ladies. We might think that we know where the film is going by this point – I mean, how many films have there been in which superheroes are shown as womanising, smoking, drinking, and foul-mouthed characters in real life? But the film subverts expectations by having the characters – not just Tobacco Force but also other people that they meet in passing – tell various ‘scary’ campfire stories that then become their own little films, as if the film was a weird reinterpretation of an Amicus movie – or perhaps, more accurately, those classic European art films that had stories within stories within stories.

These horror stories – there are two substantial ones, and other brief moments – are a lot more interesting and twisted than the main narrative and I found myself wanting more of this and fewer gags about superheroes who never take their costumes off and sleep in their helmets. The first, a tale of a woman who puts on a novelty helmet and becomes driven by a murderous contempt for her husband and their friends, is genuinely unsettling and creepy, while another features a young man being slowly crushed by a wood chipper, all the time claiming to feel fine and is more absurdist and gross, ending with a joke that is somewhat telegraphed but is nevertheless effective. It feels as though there is a grotesque and weird portmanteau movie waiting to emerge here, one that we never quite get because Dupieux is more interested in his costumed heroes. Or perhaps isn’t especially interested in anything and so allows the film to meander from place to place, never really going anywhere. It does feel like a movie that can and will go wherever the director pleases at any point, and I won’t deny that there is something enjoyable about watching a film that is content to amble from moment to moment. Equally though, it means that the film struggles to hold our attention. I’ll confess that my mind wandered and my patience ran out, which is not what I would expect from a movie that clocks in at under 80 minutes.

A lot of you are going to love this film and I get it, honestly I do. I wonder how well it will age after that first flush of gushing reviews and festival screenings where audiences talk themselves into believing that everything is the greatest thing ever. Sometimes these things surprise me and have a lasting impact – and prove more enjoyable on second viewing. As it is though, I found Smoking Causes Coughing to be transient fun – there’s a lot to enjoy and nothing here that is offensive enough to make you hate it, and that in itself is something these days. But it feels a tad contrived, as though it is trying too hard to be weird and so loses what would be genuinely bizarre and unnervingly absurdist moments in a glut of cliched mockery of Eighties kids’ TV.


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One comment

  1. I’ve still not gotten around to seeing this one (it’s in my backlog), but I’ve been a Dupiuex fan since Rubber (or technically Flat Beat if I were to include his Mr Oizo musical stylings).
    Deerskin is still probably my favourite of his films; still somewhat absurdist, but far more grounded than his more ‘out there’ offerings.
    I’ll bump this one up in the ‘to watch’ list now I’ve seen a more trustworthy review 😉

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