Smoking Causes Coughing at SOHO House!
By Sara Clark
Soho House, West Hollywood - Prior to my attendance at the Los Angeles screening of the latest film from Quentin Dupieux, I googled “Smoking Causes Coughing Trailer”. Upon seeing the video icon of a puppet-like rat, picture Alf if he was fully shaved and gray, I admit my brain came to a screeching halt. Absent-mindedly my mouth emitted the single sound “Oh”, a mix of perplexity and surprise. It was certainly not what I was expecting. Before I get ahead of myself, “Smoking Causes Coughing” is an action/comedy French film headed by director Quentin Dupieuxn aka Mr. Oizo. The film centers around the Tobacco Forces, a group of tobacco-themed vigilante superheroes who fight against the forces of evil in matching cerulean blue and white jumpsuits. Starring French film industry veterans Gilles Lellouche (Benzène), Vincent Lacoste (Méthanol), Anaïs Demoustier (Nicotine), Oulaya Amamra (Ammoniaque), and relative newcomer Jean-Pascal Zadi (Mercure). All of the film's stars have over a decade of experience in the industry, and many of them have various awards and accolades for their acting on their IMDB. The IMDB summary of Smoking Causes Coughing is misleading. It would be a mistake to market this movie as a superhero film, it doesn’t follow the formula that we have long been taught by Marvel and DC. The first fifteen minutes of the film would certainly have you believe that this is a superhero story. It opens with our leads in battle with a giant turtle (or an actor in an obvious costume reminiscent of old Godzilla movies), where the Tobacco Forces use their combined chemical smoke emission rays to create a spectacular explosive end for the enemy. Post-battle, after taking a photo with a passing family who witnessed the fight, their leader Chief Didier tells them that his analysis of their latest fights shows a weakness in group cohesion. The rat puppet orders them to take a week-long retreat to rebuild their foundation as a team, “Only if you remain close-knit can you save the Earth.” The spoiler-free version of my summary is this: I would describe this film as a superhero team-building exercise with three short films shoved in throughout, in a spirit that reminds me of 1987’s Amazon Women on the Moon. The fact that they are a superhero team is almost irrelevant. They could be anything, a hedge fund investment firm on a corporate-mandated retreat, new-age hippies trying to reconnect with the earth, or a cult just before they drink the Kool-Aid to meet their alien Jesus. While diving into my internet research for this write-up, the words that kept popping up to describe Mr. Oizo’s style of filmmaking were “Surreal” “Absurd” and “Meta”, all of which would perfectly describe this film. If you are wondering if there is anything truly weird in cinema anymore, this movie will answer that question with a hearty “Yes.” If you like South Park, Rick, and Morty, and if you are a consumer of the wacky and truly strange, then do watch Smoking Causes Coughing. I struggle to say if it is bad or good, but it is unforgettable. If you wish for me to elaborate further with Spoilers, do continue reading. You could be forgiven for assuming that the film continues with the Avengers of Tobacco Force participating in corporate-like team-building exercises that will eventually be used to fight the big bad enemy Lézardin who threatens to destroy the planet. This assumption turns out to be only somewhat true, as the next parts of the film take us on possibly unrelated routes that take us away from the initial plot. The movie seems to signal that things are about to go off the rails as Tobacco Force’s robot assistant Norbert 500 wheels himself off into the water and drowns. (Chief Didier later informs Nicotine that the robot was programmed to commit suicide at the end of their previous mission, and a new robot would be sent.) I should note the one thing to remember regarding our main leads is the love triangle between Chief Didier (who I need to remind you is a drooling rat puppet), Nicotine, and Ammoniaque. I should say love Pentagon because Chief Didier is also shown in two instances with lovers in his bed as he video chats with Tobacco Force. If trying to comprehend that is causing your brain to go numb, I don’t think this is the movie for you. The team gathers around a campfire at the retreat, and leader Benzène decides it’s time to tell scary stories as they’ve arrived at Camp Crystal Lake. Benzène leads us to the first movie within the movie, as we are taken to the tale of two couples who meet a gruesome end during a weekend retreat of their own. Agathe and Bruno are joined by their mutual couple friends Tony and Celine. Upon arrival at their Airbnb, Agathe discovers a box with a helmet-like device from 1930. The box claims that the helmet is used to shut away outside noises and distractions to improve thinking and clarity. At some point during the group’s backyard picnic, Agathe dons the helmet and is immediately seduced by the silence and seclusion the helmet gives her.
She reveals, to us the audience, her loathing of the people around her, including her husband. Her friends try to convince Agathe to remove the helmet, and Tony even tries to hammer it and saw it off. However, Agathe has so disconnected from her humanity that she stabs Tony in the eye with a nearby screwdriver before burying an ax in his head. She unemotionally assures herself that she has freed Bruce’s mind from the prison of his decaying body as Bruce and Celine run screaming. Celine and Bruce hide in the swimming pool under the tarp. The helmet has so shut off reality for Agathe that without a single thought, she drives the spiked end of a beach umbrella into his head before thrusting it in Celine’s stomach. The story concludes with Agathe sinking into the water as blood escapes from Celine’s mouth. It is suggested that the helmet takes on water and drowns Agathe. The movie remembers that we are supposed to be witnessing the retreat of Tobacco Force, and brings us back to the campfire. This reunion with the main characters is short-lived, as we are joined by a little girl, Josette, who has stumbled upon the group. Josette offers a scary story of her own, a short tale of a fish in a river who struggles to hunt due to the barrels of hazardous chemicals actively being dumped in his home. Josette’s parents retrieve their daughter, and the team retreats to an underground elaborate bunker that features my favorite amenity, a refrigerator that opens up to a supermarket with an attendant on hand. It seems as though the film has returned focus to the plot, the team take a morning stroll near the lake beside their bunker, and Benzène catches a barracuda during his swim. The team meets their newly upgraded robot Norbert 1200 and they proceed to start grilling the barracuda inside. The movie has lured you into a false sense of security that the plot will continue, as the barracuda comes back to life and starts to tell another scary story. We have deviated from the movie as the cooking barracuda tells the story of Tata Tony, who manages a lumber yard. Her managerial duties are interrupted by a member of her staff telling her that her nephew Michaël has been caught in the wood chipper. Michaël assures his aunt and the crew that he is in no pain even as he progressively gets more and more shredded by the woodchipper. As Tony contemplates how she will tell her sister that her son is dead, she is handed a bucket of blood and the still-speaking mouth of Michaël. Tony takes this bucket and heads to Michaël’s mother’s house, having what might be described as a warm bonding period if not for the fact that it is a bucket of human remains. The story continues with Tony arriving with Michaël, who swears he will take responsibility for being so careless with the woodchipper when the bucket spills and is eaten by the family dog. The movie takes us back to the Avengers, who lament that the story is over because the barracuda is burnt and this time dead for certain. The team’s van video phone rings and Chief Didier tells them that the Emperor of Evil, Lézardin, has started his attack on Earth sooner than expected. Our heroes don’t go to Lézardin’s headquarters and engage in a big-budget fight, but rather immediately start mourning the end of existence. Nicotine and Ammoniaque weep in Benzène’s arms, Méthanol buries his face in the dirt, and Mercure makes a call to his family, not telling them of the impending doom. We are taken to Lézardin’s ship, where the countdown to blow up the planet is interrupted by Lézardin’s wife, Lézardine, summoning him for dinner. Lézardin instructs his henchman to put the destruction on hold and partakes in a serving of galactic soup with his family. Tobacco Force’s melancholy continues until Chief Didier contacts them with one last hope. Chief Didier tells Mercure that Norbert 1200 has the ability to initiate sequence U55, which turns back time. The team immediately agrees to start the protocol, and Norbert 1200 chanted “Era Change in Progress.” Back on the Emperor of Evil’s ship, Lézardin is seen choking and his face falls in the plate of galactic soup. His wife and son high-five at his death, and their sudden change of alliance and plot to kill Lézardin is never explained. I am haunted by the thought that maybe Lézardine was seduced and convinced to kill her husband by Chief Didier. And now this thought will haunt you too. Chief Didier attempts to call Tobacco Force to tell them to cancel the Era Change, however, the van’s phone is ignored by the group. Chief Didier leaves a voicemail and then returns to his lover’s side in bed. Nighttime has fallen on the lakeside, where Tobacco Force sits around Norbert 1200 as it continues to repeat “Era Change in Progress.” The movie ends with them taking long and anxious drags on cigarettes, as Benzène remarks that smoking “causes coughing”. And the movie ends. And if you are like me, you are sitting trying to absorb what you just witnessed. And wondering how you’re going to explain in just 500 words what it is you saw. I think that after all I have reviewed, I would recommend Smoking Causes Coughing. Is it dumb? Yes but at least it’s interesting. With so many movies all following the same basic storyline coming out of big studios, it’s almost refreshing to see something that isn’t so cookie-cutter. Smoking Causes Coughing deviates from the very formulaic focus group tested-to-death productions that we are so used to seeing. If you are concerned that there’s nothing in the world that’s truly weird and unique and odd anymore then this would definitely be something I would recommend to put your worries to rest.