French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux has almost never steered us wrong with his droll satires like psychokinetic horror movie “Rubber,” about a murderous anthropomorphic tire, awards season satire “Reality,” or insectoid comedy “Mandibles.”
With his latest parody, “Smoking Causes Coughing,” the zany maestro also known as Mr. Oizo takes a puff off Marvel and other superhero IP by centering his bizarre comedy on a band of spandex-clad dimwits known as the Tobacco Force. It’s as consistently surprising and deranged a movie as any from his output, even if not for all tastes, which he knows.
The ridiculously named fivesome are made up of Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), and Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra). We first meet them by happenstance, following a family on a road trip who stumble upon them battling a giant, rubber-made tortoise.
Everything looks cheesy by design, with Justine Pearce’s costumes stretching over-the-top artifice to its limits thanks to the giant, hulking tortoise, who explodes after the chain-smoking superhero squad ends up giving him cancer. The fight ends disastrously, with everyone covered in buckets of blood and viscera (a nifty dumping of B-horror special effects).
Their leader, who wires in via video conference, is a talking puppet rat who spews green ooze and has poor work-life balance, as the unidentified woman in the bed next to him points out. Ammonia happens to be in love with him, which complicates their workplace dynamics later on. The rat feels like the Tobacco Force is becoming too “individualistic” in their decision-making, and so he sends them on a retreat as an exercise in team-building.
The retreat mutates “Smoking Causes Coughing” into another movie entirely, with the fivesome swapping “scary stories” over a campfire. One involves two couples (including Adèle Exarchopoulos in a hilariously ill-suited Frankenbang wig) on a vacation where a “thought helmet” found at their Airbnb from the 1930s turns one of the wives into a depressed mute, confronting the futility of existence and her own marriage, and then a psychopathic killer out of a slasher movie.
Another finds a sorry young man ground up in a wood chipper from the waist up, but who feels no pain, and winds up a disembodied pair of lips floating in a bucket of blood. One of his colleagues puts a cigarette between his lips in one of the movie’s most brutally funny moments. Dupieux handles his own cinematography, shooting the movie in a washed-out light that gives the proceedings a cheap, “Power Rangers”-like feel. (And that’s certainly abetted by the ridiculous Tobacco Force costumes.)
Interrupting the exchange of vignettes is a small girl (Thémis Terrier-Thiebaux) who happens upon their campsite. She’s not impressed by their storytelling and promises she has a story even more harrowing to share. Looming in the backdrop is the supervillain Lizardin, who heads up a grotesque fleet of quasi-humans covered in scaly puke-green lesions. His plan is world domination. “I’m destroying a sick planet, I’m putting a sick planet out of its misery.” Why? “Because Earth is not interesting.” And at the inevitable world’s end, there’s nothing to do but sit and chainsmoke anyway.
Baked into “Smoking Causes Coughing” is a sense of pointlessness reflected in such exchanges. Dupieux has a shruggingly ambivalent attitude toward life in all his films, and bizarre events unfold with a sort of eerily vacant nonchalance. The director has assured “Smoking Causes Coughing” to be, oddly, his first film to be actually connected to reality. It’s also an easygoing piece of entertainment that lightly riffs on and spoofs the familiar cheese of Marvel and DC IP. He’s playing with the genre while also flexing its tropes to reveal their inherent ridiculousness.
Trying to explain “Smoking Causes Coughing” is like recounting a dream: The person listening might not care, and it might not mean anything to them, but it leaves a weirdly unforgettable impression on the spectator.
“Smoking Causes Coughing” is now in select theaters and on demand from Magnolia Pictures.