If you’re watching “Smoking Causes Coughing,” there’s a fair chance you know that Dupieux’s the guy who directed “Rubber,” the 2010 oddity about a murderous sentient car tire. Since then, Dupieux’s produced a recognizable body of work, including “Deerskin,” about a possessed deerskin jacket, and “Mandibles,” which concerns two guys and a giant fly. Dupieux used to make overly precious electronic music as Mr. Oizo. Now he makes movies like “Smoking Causes Coughing,” which is weird and relaxed in ways that have become authentic to the filmmaker.
You might still come across “Smoking Causes Coughing” without any knowledge or interest in Dupieux or his post-Theater of the Absurd humor. Maybe you like superheroes or surreal, low-brow humor. In any case, to enjoy “Smoking Causes Coughing,” you have to want to periodically trick yourself into believing that it’s a more sensible movie than it is, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.
For starters, the Tobacco Force are not pro-smoking superheroes. Instead, they advise children never to pick up the habit, even though their superpowers are named after various elements found in cigarettes, like Nicotine (Anais Demoustier) and Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra). At the beginning of the movie, the Tobacco Force gives Tortusse cancer, which causes him to explode in very slow motion; a hail of blood and guts coats everything, especially the Tobacco Force, but also a family of civilian bystanders. Our heroes get hosed off by Norbert (voiced by Ferdinand Canaud), a tiny robot that looks like Paulie’s birthday robot from “Rocky IV.” And then their rodent boss, Didier (comedian Alain Chabat), gives the team orders via video phone calls that he initiates from his bedroom. The rat drools green ooze whenever he talks but is sexually irresistible somehow.
There’s no real character, plot, or thematic development in “Smoking Causes Coughing.” There are, however, various scenes where characters stop each other mid-thought in order to tell an amusing story that just came to mind. In one scene, which becomes several vignettes, campfire stories are exchanged, first among the Tobacco Force members and then at one point by Josette (Thémis Terrier-Thiebaux), a little girl who wanders by.
As time passes, the filmmakers rely less and less on their already flimsy narrative hook. The stories and storytellers within the movie constantly step on each other’s toes, and the main joke never really changes, despite some amusing variations: there’s no way to plan for the future if nobody’s responsible for anything. That sliver of a conceit is also maybe accommodating enough to reward Dupieux’s fans.