Director – Quentin Dupieux – 2022 – France – Cert. 15 – 77m
Saving the world is taking its toll on the group of superheroes known as the Tobacco Force, so their leader sends them on a week-long retreat to rebuild their team spirit – out in UK cinemas on Friday, July 7th
An ordinary family are on a car journey when the boy (Tanguy Mercier) asks his parents (David Marsais and Julia Faure) to stop. Again. They stop, He gets out to pee, but looking over the fence at which he’s about to do the deed, he can’t believe his eyes and rushes back to the car to ask if he can borrow dad’s binoculars. It’s only the start of the film, we’ve still no idea of what it’s about, and already director Quentin Dupieux (Deerskin, 2019) is upending whatever expectations we might have had to hilarious effect.
What is beyond the fence is this: a drop down to a beach. And on that beach, the group of superheroes known as the Tobacco Force is battling a giant turtle. This probably conjures in your mind an image of expensive, Hollywood CG effects. But no. What we have here is extremely low budget. For ‘giant’ read ‘man-sized’. So, a turtle played by a man in a turtle suit (special effects man Olivier Afonso) is surrounded by five blue with yellow and white detail-suited superheroes – Benzine (Gilles Lellouche from Tell No-one, Guillaume Canet, 2006), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste from Eden, Mia Hansen-Løve, 2015), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier from The New Girlfriend, François Ozon, 2014; Time Of The Wolf, Michael Haneke, 2003), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi) and Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra) who hurl at it from their hands all the bad effects of smoking tobacco (realised with cheap and tacky special effects which could probably have been achieved as long ago as the 1940s). For a while, Mercury can’t concentrate and this threatens their task, but eventually the Tobacco Force cause the turtle to explode and themselves and the family watching from near their car to get covered in a shower of indeterminate body parts and red goop.
After this initial battle, the superheroes are sent to a camp for a week-long retreat to rebuild their team spirit. Mercury is none too happy about this as he’d planned to spend some time with his wife and kids. The team have a robot named Norbert 500 (voice: second assistant director Ferdinand Canaud) who after taking them to the camp site walks along a pier and into a lake having been programmed to self-destruct so that he can be replaced by a more recent model, Norbert 1200 (Voice: Canaud again), who turns out to be equally useless.
At camp, they follow the time-honoured script device of sitting around a campfire telling stories (something brilliantly done in Grim Prairie Tales, Wayne Coe, 1990), but the stories are completely bonkers. Like the one about Michael (Anthony Sonigo) being trapped painlessly in an industrial mincer whose situation gets worse every time his hapless aunt attempts to get him out of the machine by running the motor backward. We never get to the end of this story, because it’s being told by the barracuda (voice: Franck Lascombes) which Benzine has caught in the lake and is cooking for supper which burns to death before it can complete the tale, incidentally rendering it unfit to eat in the process.
They communicate with their boss, Chief Didier (voice: Alan Chabat), a rat who dribbles green saliva and has a very active sex life, something which upsets the devoted Nicotine, via a cheap, analogue TV set who informs them, in the middle of their retreat, that the evil Lézardin (Adoration, Fabrice du Welz, 2019; The Brand New Testament, Jaco Van Dormael, 2015; Man Bites Dog, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992) has brought forward his plan to annihilate the world and there’s nothing he can do about it. Except, when he latest consults the manual for Norbert 1200, he discovers that there is…
Writer-director-cinematographer-editor Dupieux seems here to break all the rules of film making to somehow come up with a film that’s almost indescribably funny. Much of the acting appears embarrassing and self-conscious, yet given the calibre of the cast, and how compelling these ‘bad’ performances are to watch, one has to assume that Dupieux has coaxed his actors into doing deliberately, which for the actors is both a difficult and extremely brave thing to do, and it pays off handsomely in terms of comedy.
So too with the tacky feel of the whole thing: given that his film is mad as a hatter, it’s tempting to imagine Dupieux himself equally bonkers, but if that were true he probably wouldn’t have been able to pull off what he does so brilliantly here, and the resultant film would have been an unwatchable mess. In short, this extraordinary film is one of the silliest and funniest things you’ll see in the cinema all year. Coming in at a mere, highly commendable 77 minutes in length, it’s an absolute hoot. And a treat.
Smoking Causes Coughing is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, July 7th.