There are a couple of things you need to keep in mind before you even consider taking a look at Smoking Causes Coughing. If you’re not quite familiar with Quentin Dupieux’s usual filmmaking style, walk into Smoking Causes Coughing‘s passionately aimless narrative expecting an experience that would give your most bizarre dreams a run for their money. As amusingly obnoxious about its title as it is laidback with its story and each odd detail composing the characters, Dupieux’s comedy is a safe haven for everything that is indiscreetly absurd. Yet the endearingly childlike air that permeates the absurdy is hard not to admire, even if films like Smoking Causes Coughing aren’t usually your thing.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In ‘Smoking Causes Coughing’ Film?
Tobacco Force won’t be the first or even the last name to pop up in a conversation about your favorite group of superheroes defending the planet against oddly incompetent villains in ridiculous rubber suits. But the little kid on a drive with his parents in this fictitious version of France surely seems to idolize the strange group of “Avengers” in bland uniforms. And when Nicotine, Ammonia, Mercury, Benzene, and Methanol have no other way out but to emulsify their individual cancer-inducing chemical powers and blast the rigid Tortusse into pieces, you’d think that the concerned parents would whisk the little boy away. But the civilian family doesn’t seem to be bothered by the blood and guts raining all over them, and it’s at this point that you know you’re in for a weird trip.
Surprisingly enough, despite the name of the group and the seemingly obvious range of powers these super-individuals seem to possess, none of them are smokers. That doesn’t mean they don’t have their own sets of problems and unbeatable demons that make it quite difficult for them to form a more functional and moral cohesion between themselves. You might be okay with their juvenile bickering and the daunting lack of team spirit, but their leader, Chief Didier, the unbelievably hideous rat puppet Nicotine has a hopeless crush on, isn’t having any of it. So it’s an unforeseen team-building retreat the whiny group is headed to with their trusted robot buddy Norbert 500, which, as soon as they arrive at the spot, takes a dip in the lake and kills itself.
What’s Going On With Tobacco Force?
Whether you immediately pick up on it or not, amidst the whimsical shenanigans the five members of Tobacco Force limit their interactions to, there are some pretty grounded issues behind their apparent discontentment with their savior complex. It would be convenient to chalk up their conspicuous dearth of motivation or even world-saving skills to the comedic nature of the film, but just a slightly closer look at the five is likely to open a can of worms. Take Benzene, for instance. A man gray with age and hardly ever granted the kind of respect that his dreams are made of, the result of Benzene’s incessant efforts toward seeking the long overdue acknowledgment of his heroics is invariably hopeless. And Nicotine’s primary reason for even being on the team is her staggering lack of self-worth, which presents itself as an acutely obtuse crush on Chief Didier. Granted, Ammonia’s Ted talk is fueled by an equally off-putting personal agenda, but just the fact that it takes another person to point out how revolting it would be to kiss Didier’s perpetually slime-dripping mouth for Nicotine to be disillusioned tells you more about her emotional immaturity than anything else. Keeping with the contemporary suicidal stoicism that has afflicted a large chunk of mankind, the threat of Lizardin’s world-ending attack doesn’t even seem to be much cause for concern for the group of saviors.
What Does Their Bonding Retreat Consist Of?
The “comfortable” beds and a fully stocked “supermarket fridge,” complete with a personal assistant seem to be no match for the call of the outdoors and a bonfire. Add to that an insistent Benzene with a campfire story he believes would blow everyone’s minds, and you’ve got the perfect setup for a campy horror. But as you’d probably expect, it doesn’t go there. What you perhaps didn’t expect was just how chockfull of existential symbolism Benzene’s story was going to be. Isn’t the “Thinking Helmet” from the 1930s that makes a fairly stable woman handing the wheel to her homicidal intrusive thoughts exactly what the group needs? Or would they, too, go on a murderous rampage, just like the woman did, and end the retreat on a bloody note? It takes a more pressing tale of a poor fish stuck in a polluted lake told by a wandering toddler for the group to shudder. I’d leave it up to you to scrutinize just how untethered Tobacco Force is from reality. What’s freakishly in touch with the real world despite its mischievous storytelling is the film itself. Why else would Norbert’s upgraded version be far less functional than the one that was set to drown itself to death after the Tortusse mission? New doesn’t inherently mean better.
What Is The Message Behind The Barracuda’s Story?
At this point, a talking fish should be the last thing to shock you about Smoking Causes Coughing‘s narrative. When it comes to a group of people who mindlessly do the gratuitous act of showing a freakishly gory video of a beheading to a child, I’m sure you didn’t expect them to be the voices of reason. But Dupieux isn’t about to let you form an opinion about his characters without seeing all sides. It takes a writer-director to know his characters through and through to aptly predict that even a simple act such as Methanol telling off the woman in the fridge for being presumptuous about his intentions would leave a mark on you. After all, it’s the audience who is being asked to refrain from making hasty judgments about the characters based on their tantrums.
It’s a challenge not to be thoroughly impressed when Benzene catches a ginormous barracuda with his bare hands. But the impression made by Benzene’s fishing skills pales in comparison to the fish’s story-telling abilities, even as its insides are being charred on the stove. Tony, the overwhelmed aunt hopelessly lacking in self-awareness, is practically a broad representation of each member of the Tobacco Force—overly confident in their non-existent skills and dismissive of the trail of pain they leave in their wake. But the real treat is Michael in a bucket, timidly downplaying his devastated condition lest he appears to be an inconvenience.
With symbolism this vague and disturbingly cryptic, there’s nothing keeping you from going ballistic with your interpretations. But if you ask me, Michael’s puddle-in-a-bucket condition and subsequent “death” are as nihilistic a metaphor for existential dread as it gets. It’s only in his blended-up state that he even gets his feelings acknowledged, and even then, he’s impassively aware that his pain means nothing to the people who’re supposed to care about him. What’s going on with all the concerningly sentient fish, you ask? Well, they’ve been here since before our kind decided to barge in and claim the planet as our own. Who’s to say they haven’t been keeping an eye on how big of a mess we’ve made of ourselves? Who’s to say that there won’t be a sequel where Tobacco Force’s valiant efforts in crushing a gigantic super-animal would end in a grand feast of roasted fish?
‘Smoking Causes Coughing’ Ending Explained
For a film that’s hardly interested in doing anything more than barely scratching the surface of why the characters are how they are, it’s no surprise that backstories aren’t really Smoking Causes Coughing‘s thing. But since we’re here and we can’t seem to stop our nauseated minds from going down an aimless spiral of pondering over the characters’ thoughts and motivations, it can’t hurt to go further down the rabbit hole. From the looks of it, each of the Tobacco Force superheroes is, in their own idiosyncratic ways, hurt little child hankering for love and approval. They aren’t particularly brave either; however ironic that may be for a group of heroes supposedly keeping the world from harm. Why else would Ammonia have her heart in her mouth when she hears a sound coming from the bushes nearby? It isn’t just Ammonia’s innate fear of the unknown that the incident brings to light.
Methanol’s immediate conclusion that it might be a perverted creep hiding in the bushes said more about his personal demons than he meant for it to. Conquering the not-so-subtle facade of subtlety, each scene with Mercury’s opinions and wishes going unheard speaks volumes about the kind of treatment he receives from the rest of the group as the only Black member. But the fact that he’s been compelled to go on this retreat despite his pleadings to see his wife and kids isn’t necessarily about Chief Didier’s racial bias. The rat-puppet Chief, who frequently invites gorgeous women into his sketchy room, is the classic yet whimsically imagined representation of every exploitative bigwig who couldn’t care less about the well-being of his underlings.
You could even go as far as to draw a direct parallel between the fancy pod the Tobacco Force has been given for their retreat and the corporate “perks” that employees are distracted with as their very life force is drained out of them. And if we weren’t convinced of it already, Smoking Causes Coughing goes a step further and doubles down with another motif that, if anything, is an irrefutable example of power hierarchy and its dangers. How else would a sickening rat with green slime (that could be detergent or acid, I guess) tirelessly dripping from his mouth seduce the women in Tobacco Force? If not for the allure of the power Didier holds and a desire to thrive in her career, why would Ammonia manipulate Nicotine into giving up on the idea of being with him? As it turns out, the only place where the system is being overthrown, and the grasp of patriarchal dominance is being put to death is not even a place on earth.
It’s the planet where Lizardin rules, or thinks he does. He may be nice enough to put destroying Earth on hold to abide by his wife’s strict supper routine, but his wife and their little kid have clearly had enough of what seems to be his hobby: mercy-killing “sick” planets. Bet the all-powerful conqueror didn’t see the poisoned galactic soup and his subsequent death coming! But that fails to bring the kind of relief that it should’ve brought to the group of superheroes who were too quick to assume defeat. Although they can hardly be blamed when it was Chief Didier who was perhaps too busy entertaining his date to let them know of the impending danger. And as they were busy trying to make a robot that takes a minute to do simple math to turn back time and save the world, they missed the call that was supposed to tell them to abort the mission. But guess who doesn’t care if his employees live or die?
If you didn’t scratch your eyes out when you saw Chief Didier with his date for the last time, what you were met with was the grand victory of gloom. It’s not very life-affirming for an anti-smoking group of superheroes to take puff after puff of cigarettes while awaiting time’s transition, is it? For an organization supposed to prevent interplanetary wars and any danger that might befall Earth, Tobacco Force’s superpowers and gadgets were embarrassingly inadequate. It’s hard to say how long Norbert 1200 would take to turn back time, if it could even achieve this feat. And if it were to be successful in changing the era, it would only effectively undo Lizardin’s death and endanger the world once again.
It’s entirely possible that Chief Didier doesn’t even live on earth and therefore is safe from Lizardin’s wrath. And like always, it’s the group of cigarette-wielding soldiers safeguarding the planet that doesn’t necessarily recognize their efforts, working for a puppet who most likely doesn’t stand to lose much if the planet dies. Their only hope of survival is Norbert 1200’s very probable failure. That is, if they can quit smoking after a near-death experience and a complete devastation of any sense of accomplishment they might’ve had when their efforts didn’t go in vain.