For a film featuring bloody interspecies warfare, rampant murder and mutilation, a pessimistic treatise on environmental pollution and (maybe) the end of the world — all crammed into just 77 minutes — “Smoking Causes Coughing” feels both rather jaunty and entirely inconsequential. That would be surprising if it came from anyone but Quentin Dupieux, the current absurdist-in-chief of French auteur cinema: Everything in his latest that feels, in and of itself, out of left field also happens to be comfortably in his lane. Following a group of spandex-clad, cigarette-toting superheroes on a rural retreat, intended to recharge their powers, that goes shaggily awry, this is a minor escapade even for Dupieux, its already slack structure eventually devolving into disconnected sketches. It’s a film of fragmentary but funny rewards — funnier still, most likely, if accompanied by smoking of a different kind.
Aptly unveiled in the Midnight program at Cannes this year — Dupieux’s first outing in the festival’s official selection — “Smoking Causes Coughing” plays ideally as a brief, bright palate cleanser in festival conditions, a welcome respite from heftier and more challenging fare. Minus the cohesive narrative drive or thematic definition of Dupieux’s 2019 feature “Deerskin” (or this year’s “Incredible But True,” premiered mere months ago in Berlin), however, this featherweight effort is unlikely to attract as much distributor attention outside its home territory — where a notable cast of gamely slumming French thesps will draw audiences. As in past Dupieux joints, the high-low contrast of talents like Benoît Poelvoorde and Adèle Exarchopoulos performing this zonked-out nonsense material completely deadpan a large part of the joke.
In typically offhand, wrongfooting fashion, Dupieux opens on a disposable set of characters with minimal bearing on the story: a road-tripping family, from whose perspective we first chance-encounter the Tobacco Force, a quintet of evil-battling superheroes kitted out in gas-blue catsuits and silver space helmets. (The resemblance to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers — albeit in ragged Halloween-costume form — is clear.) Individually named for key cigarette ingredients (Nicotine, Benzène, Methanol, Ammoniaque, Mercure), they combine forces to strike their enemies — such as the giant, clunky foam-rubber turtle they’re seen fighting at the outset — with cancer, to grisly, head-exploding effect. Not that their method of combat stops them lighting up when the chips are down: As superhero collectives go, Tobacco Force may not be as powerful as the Avengers, but they’re considerably more Gallically chic.
In any case, Dupieux’s nostalgic reference points here have less to do with the modern, Disney-fied wave of superhero storytelling than with cheap, kid-targeted TV shows of decades past. That the Force’s instructor Chef Didier (voiced by Alain Chabat) is a giant, mangy-looking rat — another deliberately shoddy feat of retro-kitsch costuming — even seems a nod to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Just as Dupieux establishes this chintzy world, however, he seems to tire of it. When the Force is sent to a lakeside camp by Chef Didier to work on their team bonding, their attention wanders along with the film’s, as fireside storytelling sessions plunge us into assorted unrelated narratives, and the tone veers more toward mordant comedy-horror.
These diversions are individually amusing even if they don’t add up to much. In one, performed with dark comic brio by Exarchopoulos, a sinister welder’s helmet forces homicidal inclinations on its wearer; in another, a cheerful young man working at his aunt’s wine farm is gradually ground to a pulp in a mechanical grape presser, remaining inexplicably alive and upbeat as his body gets juiced. (Blanche Gardin’s straight-faced bemusement as his hapless guardian makes the entire silly skit.) This blend of the chipper and the grotesque is Dupieux’s stock-in-trade, yet “Smoking Causes Coughing” nonetheless feels like a grab-bag of offcut ideas for which he hasn’t found room in a more substantial feature.
There might be more narrative and comic mileage, for example, in the vain, horny heroics of the Tobacco Force if they were given something to actually do. Yet their pointlessness becomes something of a punchline in itself — especially as, with storytime over, proceedings turn apathetically apocalyptic, and it’s left only to one chronically malfunctioning robot to save the day. No real sense of peril is forthcoming: In this amiably trollish throwaway, Dupieux invites his characters and audience alike to chill out and take things as they come, preferably with a smoke in hand.