June Butler checks out Quentin Dupieux’s latest comedy.

Smoking Causes Coughing (Fumer Fait Tousser) is a hilarious French sci-fi/horror comedy seen through the unique lens of director Quentin Dupieux. Born in April 1974, Dupieux is also known as a musician and DJ, going by the stage name of Mr.Oizo (pronounced ‘Oiseau’, which is the French for ‘bird’). Dupieux has a specific and individual style of direction which is unashamedly and delightfully daft in every conceivable way.  

A band of idealistic crusaders going by the moniker ‘Tobacco Force’ have made it their mission to declare war on the smoking habits of the world. Dressed in old-fashioned, ill-fitting uniforms, almost like cut-price superheroes, they are on an uncompromising mission to battle (and vanquish) fantastic beasts. Named after chemical elements contained in cigarettes, Benzène (Gilles LelIouche), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Mercure (Jean-Pascal Zadir), and Ammoniaque (Oulaya Amamra), high-kick their way through dramatic scenes guided by Chief Didier, a drooling, rat-like puppet who wields an astonishing level of romantic success with a succession of beautiful young women. Alain Chabat as the voice and puppeteer of anti-hero Chief Didier manages to make the character plausible and admirable in a world where everyone else seems to be clinging to an alternate reality. It is almost as if Dupieux is trying to turn everything inside out and backwards. Drooling rats are lauded as lovers with infinite sex-appeal. Aging vigilantes do not see the ridiculousness of their efforts. Children behave as mature entities well beyond their tender years. Tobacco Force members are pointless and puerile. The film is a story of opposites – an anthology of collective silliness.   

After a lacklustre fight between the members of Tobacco Force and a giant tortoise, Chief Didier decides to promote some team-building and sends the group in a rickety old van with an archaic two-way video transmitter to a remote, rural area where they will be free from outside distractions and the in-group bonding can begin. The two female members of Tobacco Force however, are enamoured with Chief Didier and spend most of their time attempting to flirt with him via the video transmitter.  

Within the film, there are several separate mini-stories – the first is a tale of two couples who travel to a country house somewhere in France where Agathe (Doria Tillier) finds a bizarre helmet-like contraption that enables the wearer to think more logically and calmly without input from the outside world. Swiftly Agathe puts the helmet on, thus ensuring a calamitous and catastrophic fallout for the other members of her group. In the vignette, Céline (played by the utterly sublime Adèle Exarchopoulos, (Blue is the Warmest Colour, 2013)), steals the show. Exarchopoulos excels as the vacuous and empty-headed Céline. For her scenes alone, I’d watch the entire film. 

The other narratives involve a potentially fatal accident on a farm and a talking fish. In the background, and of great concern to Chief Didier, lies Benoît Poelvoorde as Lézardin, an Emperor of Evil. There’s no question that Dupieux has based the character of Lézardin on Dr. Evil (Mike Myers) from the Austin Powers series of films. 

Smoking Causes Coughing is gloriously insane and far from taking itself too seriously. Adults act like immature juveniles. The only child who makes a moral contribution to the story, is sensible, empathetic, and grown-up. What is most charming about the movie, is that there is no effort at pretence, and it was clearly shot on a shoestring budget. Back-drops consist of dusty fields, sparsely treed forests, and unpopulated areas. No expensive set-hires in urban locations and props are at an absolute minimum. Far from the sleek Aston Martin cars of James Bond fame, Tobacco Force cohorts are crammed together in the back of a van, bouncing along pot-hole riddled tracks in a vehicle that has seen better days. The costumes are poorly fitting. Robots and other techniques are so basic as to cause amazement when they work. It reeks of cost-cutting but that is part of the film’s charm. There’s no need to check for bloopers – they are part of the narrative and form an additional, weirdly perfect part of the tale.  

Smoking Causes Coughing is a precursor to potentially greater and longer films – greater in terms of more sutured together storytelling and added cohesive linking of the narrative. It’s just a little disjointed and the anthological element causes a bit of stop/start as the film progresses. I found myself investing in one tale (within a tale), only for it to suddenly end and a new story aspect introduced to encourage continued audience participation. The movie is relatively short at 77 minutes, but I feel that for the director, this is just the beginning of many more filmic creations. There might even be a Smoking Causes Coughing II (or more) in a sequence of films, evolving into a benchmark of barmy from the imagination of Quentin Dupieux.   

Smoking Causes Coughing is in cinemas from 7th July 2023.


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