Just minutes into Quentin Dupieux’s Smoking Causes Coughing, it becomes obvious that something isn’t right about its team of faux Power Rangers. The five-person superhero group, known as Tobacco Force, dispatches a hulking rubber turtle monster by shooting it with a concentrated stream of cigarette smoke, giving the beast such an awful case of cancer that it explodes in a long, lingering spread of gore. Drenched in the kaiju’s greasy blood and guts, Tobacco Force celebrates another win. It looks like just another day at the office — in this case, an empty quarry, the ideal filming location for spandex-clad kung-fu antics and explosions.
The five members of Tobacco Force, all named after elements of cigarette smoke — Benzene, Nicotine, Ammonia, Mercury, and Methanol — promptly report back to their boss, Chief Didier. He turns out to be a ratlike puppet that looks like a cigarette left unchecked and burning down to ash, and he’s constantly drooling green goo on himself. It’s suddenly dreadfully clear that Dupieux has dressed up an absurdist comedy in the costume of a tokusatsu superhero series. Further underscoring that absurdity: One Tobacco Force member has a painfully unrequited crush on this womanizing, slobbering, red-eyed rat thing.
It only gets weirder from there.
Smoking Causes Coughing is masked as a send-up of superhero shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Kamen Rider, with a monster-of-the-week bad guy and a looming intergalactic threat. But the heroes of Tobacco Force are tasked with an atypical mission: When Mercury experiences performance anxiety and can’t produce smoke on demand, Chief Didier mandates recuperation time for the whole team. A forced-fun retreat, the Chief says, is necessary to address their floundering group cohesion in advance of a potential catastrophic event.
Dupieux establishes wonderfully bizarre and micro-scale world-building for their retreat. On arriving at their home away from home, an underground bunker, the team members express delight at seeing a lake, such an incredibly rare thing in this world that they have to comment on it. They marvel at amenities like seawater showers, hard titanium beds, and a refrigerator that’s just a doorway to a fully stocked grocery store, staffed by a friendly woman who’s ready to bring the team whatever they need. They sleep and go swimming in their full Tobacco Force costumes.
What happens next, as the Tobacco Force members grapple with personal issues and try to connect by telling each other bizarre stories, is better left unspoiled. But Dupieux fills the quick 80-minute film with bonkers swerves. It’s impossible to predict what will happen next in Smoking Causes Coughing, because Dupieux rejects superhero storytelling templates in favor of whiplash-inducing story choices.
The stories Dupieux tells through his characters are funny, absurd, and violent. The writer-director — best known for his 2010 film Rubber, about a possessed, murderous rubber car tire — delivers some shocking violence and gore, but with the most laid-back and calming direction. One of the film’s grisliest, most difficult-to-watch moments is delivered with such remarkable nonchalance that it makes the whole of Smoking Causes Coughing worth watching.
In the movie’s production notes, Dupieux says his superhero movie “never imposes any big speeches, and there is no moral of the story,” claiming that it is simply “an unabashed source of inconsequential entertainment.” That’s certainly true — this is a low-key hangout movie with remarkably minimal stakes and no big resolution. (Stick around for the post-credits scene for a final gag that just underlines Dupieux’s dedication to not wrapping up a story.)
At the same time, Smoking Causes Coughing’s lightness and amorality is difficult to square with its themes of environmental collapse, pollution, and societal disconnection. But maybe all of those ideas are just more misdirection from Dupieux. Sure, his film initially looks like a nostalgic superhero farce. Then it starts to feel like a prank on the audience. But that feels less true the deeper you get into it.
At one point, Dupieux does flirt with a morality message, when Tobacco Force leader Benzene tells a starry-eyed fan of the team that smoking is an unhealthy habit that will destroy his body and won’t make him look cool. But when faced with imminent destruction, our heroes wind up nervously chain-smoking anyway, while reflecting on the absurdity and missed opportunities of their lives. If there’s one takeaway from Smoking Causes Coughing, it may be that: Life is short and illogical, and it often feels like one big joke that’s just a beat away from a punchline.
Smoking Causes Coughing is now playing in limited theatrical release, and is available for rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.