I thought I was flat fucking done with Quentin Dupieux.

For those unfamiliar with the French cinematic provocateur, this tells you pretty much everything you need to know. That’s the opening scene of Rubber, in which a sentient tire gains psychokinetic powers, using it to roll around and make people’s heads explode. Trust me, it makes even less sense in context.

I had written off Dupieux ages ago as an avant garde troll, making deliberately nonsensical films and waiting for praise to come from a horde of cinephiles stuck up their own asses. But on reflection, I haven’t revisited Rubber or any of Dupieux’s other films since that one came out all the way back in 2009.

So here’s Smoking Causes Coughing, a super sentai parody from Dupieux. As if my generation hasn’t already lived through 30 freaking years of Power Rangers media in addition to the umpteen different parodies and knockoffs. Oh, and Power Rangers was always a parody of itself, that goes without saying.

That said, this is coming from a dyed-in-the-wool Power Rangers kid from back in the ’90s heyday. Which is maybe why I found this one genuinely funny and insightful while I didn’t get Rubber at all. Finally, Dupieux is speaking a language I can understand.

To start with, I should point out that there are 1) no giant robots, 2) our team of superheroes are not color-coded, and 3) they’re not teenagers, but full-grown adults with the mental and emotional maturity of teenagers. They are as follows.

  • Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), the douchebag de facto leader of the team
  • Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), the socially awkward loser
  • Nicotine (Anais Demoustier), the kind of female character portrayed as both a virgin and a sex object
  • Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), the lame dad who wants to be cool, but mostly wants to get back to his family
  • Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), the backstabbing best friend

Together, they are the Tobacco Force, a team of superheroes that uses all the negative toxic effects of cigarettes to either make monsters stop breathing or give them cancer. It’s vague, but the practical outcome is that the monsters blow up, raining chunks of gore and gallons of fake blood onto anyone within shouting distance.

I know it’s not a good explanation of the premise, but at least it’s an explanation. That’s more than I’ve come to expect from Dupieux.

They are led by Chief Didier (voiced by Alain Chabat), a misshapen rat puppet drooling toxic green goo. Yet he’s also a rampant chauvinist and women can’t help throwing themselves at him for some reason. Oh, and let’s not forget Norbert (voiced by Ferdinand Canaud), the malfunctioning robot assistant.

Anyway, the basic gist is that Didier has grown dissatisfied with the Tobacco Force’s teamwork. They couldn’t be faltering at a worse time, as the interplanetary tyrant Lezardin (Benoit Poelvoorde) is on his way to blow up the Earth. So, before Lezardin gets here, the Tobacco Force is sent on a nature retreat to get some R&R and work on team cohesion. In the process, they share scary stories over the campfire, leading to two or three short horror films that have no connection whatsoever with the overarching plot.

It’s pure utter nonsense. It’s disjointed and bonkers from start to finish. But there’s a method to the madness.

Again, it helps that we’re speaking the language of Power Rangers and super sentai. Weird shit happens, it’s over in a brief amount of time, and we move on to the next episode like nothing happened. We’ve got weird alien species and robots and superheroes making goofy poses in head-to-toe spandex, and that’s accepted reality. Our motley team of superheroes isn’t getting along, so their mentor figure sends them on a quest to work their shit out. All of this fits perfectly into the Power Rangers viewing experience I remember as a kid, which gives the filmmakers license to go to all these weird places.

Another crucial factor is that unlike Rubber, there’s a very clear baseline of reality. When something weird happens, there’s always another character nearby to react and comment how weird it is. Even during the “scary story” asides (clearly established as dramatizations of campfire stories out-of-continuity with the rest of the film), we still have “straight” characters on hand to help show what’s supposed to be scary or funny or shocking or gross. Not only does the contrast serve to keep the story coherent, but it makes the horror and the comedy really land.

Most importantly of all, there’s a subtle overarching theme about how negativity brings us together. Displays of violence, cultural prejudice, fear of death, hatred of a scapegoat, the love of unhealthy vices that feel good (cigarettes, for instance)… for how evil all these things are, at least they have a short-term benefit in uniting people. It’s an unorthodox and unsettling theme, and presenting it by way of a warped kids’ TV parody makes it delectably subversive.

Smoking Causes Coughing is the kind of film I’m glad that I saw ONCE. It’s twisted and demented, gleefully violent and disgusting, a wickedly intelligent film about rock-stupid characters. All of this to say that it’s a film everyone will either absolutely love or totally hate, without much of any room in between.

That’s a huge reason why I have a tough time recommending this. I might add that at 80 minutes long with credits, no way is this worth feature-length ticket prices. But there’s no doubt in my mind that this movie has an audience, and they’ll be sure to seek this out.

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