A man driven to crime over an obsession with his jacket. Two men who find a giant fly in the boot of a car. A telekinetic, killer tyre. On paper these synopses have nothing in common. However watch Deerskin, Mandibules and Rubber and it is clear to see they are linked by a unique cinematic vision. That of filmmaker, Quentin Dupiuex.
His last four films have screened at the Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals and it is safe to say one should expect the unexpected. Smoking Causes Coughing is no different. Offering up his latest slice of absurdist comedy, even if the end result is arguably his most disjointed.
It follows the adventures of The Tobacco Force. A superhero quintet who are introduced battling a giant killer turtle. With their bright blue spandex outfits and silver helmets, they resemble the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Clearly the overriding inspiration for the team, the show's style filters down to the production design and cinematography.
Where it does differ however is this show/film is not for kids. A fact made clear early on when their enemy is defeated with Grindhouse-levels of gore and guts covering everything in sight. Including a family that was innocently passing by.
Happy to stop for a photo with the blood-soaked ménage, the group is keen to point out that despite the name, they are firmly anti-smoking. An irony seemingly lost on them given they all individually possess the power of (and named after) an individual ingredient of a cigarette (Nicotine, Benzène, Methanol, Ammoniaque, Mercure). When combined, giving their enemy a deadly (and explosive) form of cancer. Earth's Mightest Heroes they are not!
Following issues in the initial battle that nearly cost them victory, their boss Chief Didier (a giant puppet in the form of a rat) sends them on a retreat to reconnect and improve their teamwork. To ensure they are a cohesive unit ahead of battling their ultimate nemesis Lezardin.
Having set up a scenario where a group of superheroes might have to sit down and talk about their problems in a therapeutic setting, Dupieux pulls the rug out from under the audience. Instead the retreat evolves into the team sitting round the campfire. Engaged in a game of one-upmanship as to who can tell the scariest story. Including one told by a barracuda who is being barbecued for dinner.
The stories are full-on cutaways. Not Family Guy-style 30 seconds jokes but full portmanteau sequences featuring different casts.
These tales which in the eyes of the storyteller are terrifying are played out with Dupieux's trademark deadpan humour. They include a thinking mask that leads to a nihilistic despair for the wearer and the world's calmest man stuck in an industrial shredder.
Whilst the individual stories are fun in their own respect, they come at the expense of the narrative involving the team. With little opportunity to explore any form of tension or dynamics between the members. Never mind the team itself having issues bonding, the writer-director himself does not seem convinced the team is interesting enough to merit the audience's attention. Stubbing out any chance of engaging with their part of the story.
Overall, it feels like a film cobbled together from ideas for short films. Adding up to less than the sum of its parts. There is much to enjoy during its bright and breezy runtime. Smoking causes laughing is a more appropriate title, with comedy as black as the tar in a smoker's lungs. It is just a shame they couldn't cough up a strong enough narrative to keep the whole thing together.