Smoking Causes Coughing. Of course it does. It might be the only bit of sense there is in Quentin Dupieux’s latest film, a drama-free but quirk-heavy work of surreal flippancy centring on a gang of superheroes who call themselves the Tobacco Force.
In their tight suits and helmets, this gang look like the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers but as we meet them they appear to be fighting a character who’s escaped from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a gigantic upright Tortoise called Tortusse (the film is in French, which explains the tortoise’s name, and the film’s original one, Fumer Fait Tousser). Struggling, even five to one, the Tobacco Force decide to combine their forces in one gigantic concentrated splurge of superpower energy. And so they hit him, the big Tortusse, with a forcible emanation of Nicotine, Ammonia, Benzene, Methanol and Mercury from their outstretched superhero arms. Nicotine, Ammonia etc etc are their names too, handily. The tortoise explodes with a stupendous (and funny) surfeit of splatter.
Setting us up for a finale which will involve a showdown with a lizard creature played by Benoît Poelvoorde – one of the European patron saints of quirk – Dupieux essentially retires his team from the story at this point. At the behest of their boss, a drooling rat puppet who communicates via old-school tech and is always entertaining female humans on the bed in his rat mastermind lair, the Tobacco Force are sent off on a week’s bonding exercise, where, the boss hopes, they will learn to become a more cohesive unit.
The movie devolves into a portmanteau of separate tales told by different people. One of them about a woman who discovers a “thinking helmet” on a holiday weekend with some friends. After she puts it on and refuses to take it off, the weekend goes wonky, then wrong and eventually ends in mayhem and bloody terror. Then there’s a very short story told by a girl who happens to be passing, a simple one about a fish who swims to the surface of a lake and sees a man emptying a barrel of chemicals into it. And then a third, told by a barracuda as he is being barbecued, about a young man who falls into a wood chipper and ends up as a bucket of thinking talking goo.
Of course he does, you’ll say, if you’ve seeen a Dupieux film before. The man who gave us a sentient rubber tyre in Rubber, a man who falls hopelessly in love with a suede jacket in Deerskin, and Mandibles, the one about a dumb and dumber pair and their relationship with a giant insect.
My favourite is Rubber, but then that was the first one I saw and the supicion is growing that, at four films in, I’ve now had my fill of Dupieux. For all the brilliance of the conceits there’s often a painful lack of cause and effect, of ordering logic. Alternate universes are fine and dandy but if they don’t operate via recognisable rules it’s impossible to invest.
There’s not much drama, in other words, though Dupieux continues to pull in the names. Gilles Lellouche, Anaïs Demoustier, Adèle Exarchopoulos (her second time with Dupieux), Alain Chabat and Vincent Lacoste are the more recognisable ones this time around, and what stands out here, as in all Dupieux movies, is the sheer stony-faced commitment of all concerned. It’s a serious business, all this messing about.
Coming up, a few of those names will appear alongside Romain Duris in Dupieux’s next movie, which seems like the logical next step, since it’s called Daaaaaali! and is all about surreal joker supreme Salvador Dali. That is going to be interesting, Dupieux fatigue or no Dupieux fatigue.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023