French absurdist Quentin Dupieux has been on a real hot streak lately. Threatened to only be remembered as an early-internet memester for his Mr. Oizo music videos and the killer-tire horror comedy Rubber, Dupieux recently hit a creative breakthrough in the killer-jacket horror comedy Deerskin. On paper, it might not appear that there had been much progression between his early novelty horror about a murderous rubber tire with telekinetic powers and his more recent novelty horror about a murderous deerskin jacket with telepathetic powers, but Deerskin really did mark a new level of maturity & self-awareness in Dupieux’s art that’s been consistently paying off in the few years since. Every one of his films, including Rubber, are proudly Absurdist comedies about the meaninglessness of Everything, but Deerskin extended that worldview a step further to indict his own catalog of work as meaningless art about meaninglessness – an endless parade of empty frivolities. That might sound like it would de-value Dupieux’s creative output, but it’s instead freed him to follow his most inane, meaningless impulses for the sake of their own pleasure, and he’s been making his funniest comedies to date as a result.
At first glance, Smoking Causes Coughing registers as just another one of Dupieux’s hilarious but meaningless novelties, no more important in his larger oeuvre than his recent Dumb & Dumber buddy comedy about a monstrously gigantic housefly. Since all of his movies assert a consistent absurdist worldview, there isn’t much to distinguish the individual titles from each other outside the immediate humor of their high-concept bar napkin premises. If Dupieux had fully committed to a feature-length Power Rangers parody entirely focused on the Super Sentai superhero knockoffs rebuilding group “cohesion” & “sincerity” on a mundane work retreat, that’s exactly what Smoking Causes Coughing would be: another fun, dumb, proudly meaningless comedy from an increasingly prolific director who makes two or three novelties just like it every year. Instead, it manages to feel like yet another Deerskin-style shakeup to his creative routine, freeing him to be even dumber & more meaningless than ever before. That’s because it’s an anthology horror comedy disguised as a feature-length Power Rangers parody, a surprise change in format that has not been hinted at in the film’s cheeky advertising.
Apparently antsy about having to spend 80 minutes on just one absurdist bar napkin premise, Dupieux is now chopping them up into bite-sized 8-minute morsels, which is great, because every impulse he has is hilariously idiotic. With Smoking Causes Coughing, he’s entered his goofball Roy Andersson era, merging philosophical art & sight-gag sketch comedy into an efficient joke-telling machine that’s free to follow its momentary whims from vignette to vignette without fear of losing the audience’s confidence. In the Power Rangers-spoofing wraparound story, a team of helmeted rubber-monster fighters called The Tobacco Squad (because they use the destructive powers of cigarette smoke to defeat their intergalactic kaiju enemies) find their teamwork in daily battles increasingly disjointed, so they go on a corporate-style work retreat to rebuild group cohesion. As soon as that gag is milked for all it’s worth, the individual members of Tobacco Squad (Nicotine, Mercury, Methanol, etc.) entertain each other with campfire horror stories to pass the time, which allows Dupieux to fire off as many short-form, for-their-own-sake inanities as he pleases. They’re all very funny (especially the slasher parody segment involving a noise-cancelling isolation helmet) and intensely idiotic in the exact ways Dupieux’s ideas have been from the start, but none of them threaten to outstay their welcome the way a single-joke premise like Rubber might have in the past.
All that Dupieux’s missing at this point, really, is an American audience. It’s likely no coincidence that my favorite two movies from him to date are the ones I happened to catch in the theater, so it’s a shame their only New Orleans screenings were at festivals, not in regular theatrical runs. I very much appreciated getting to laugh along with like-minded crowds during Deerskin at New Orleans French Film Fest in early 2020 and, more recently, during Smoking Causes Coughing at Overlook Film Fest last week (the same day it was domestically released VOD). Still, it’s odd to see his work sidelined as specialty events for niche audiences. Both films killed in the room, and it would be incredibly cool to see Dupieux’s recent output get the crowd-pleaser rollout they deserve. If an easily marketable Power Rangers aesthetic and a glowing blurb from John Waters calling his latest “a superhero movie for idiots” & “one of the best films of the year” isn’t enough to earn Dupieux wide theatrical distro before being siphoned to streaming, it’s doubtful anything ever will. We shouldn’t be allowing the funniest comedies on the market to be downplayed as high-brow festival fodder because they happen to be in French, but I guess I should just be grateful that he’s continuing to make them and that local fests like Overlook are continuing to program them; it’s always a blast, especially with a crowd.
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