24 Lies a Second: Free Silly

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Free Silly

The year's most confounding film mash-up arrives in the form of Smoking Causes Coughing (title en Francais: Fumer fait tousser), another production from the brain of writer/director/producer/editor/musician/weirdo Quentin Dupieux (creator of the killer-tyre film Rubber, killer-jacket film Deerskin, and deadbeats-adopt-giant-fly film Mandibles). It opens with a family breaking their car journey for a comfort break, at which point their young son is delighted to discover they have stumbled onto the scene of an epic clash between the superhero team Tobacco Force and their foe Tortusse.

The five members of Tobacco Force – Benzene, Ammonia, Nicotine, Methanol and Mercury – wear somewhat unflattering blue rubber jumpsuits and plastic helmets, while Tortusse is basically a dude in a tortoise costume. Nevertheless, he is a tough opponent for the team to overcome until they combine their efforts and blast him with cigarette vapour. Even so, the team's boss, a constantly slavering rat named Chief Didier (voicing and operating the ridiculous rat puppet is Alain Chabat), is concerned that Tobacco Force's team cohesion is on the wane – so he packs them off for a week's retreat to work on their camaraderie.

They move into an underground bunker complete with something called a 'supermarket fridge' (which basically just means it has a cashier living in it), awaiting the arrival of an upgraded version of their robot valet, Norbert 500. (The robot is a stunning example of production design and special effects craftsmanship... no, of course it doesn't, it looks as deliberately shoddy as everything else in this movie.) While they're waiting, some of the team start telling scary stories around the campfire...

So – and bear in mind this is the best one can do – it's essentially a sort of cross between Power Rangers and Tales That Witness Madness (or any other anthology horror movie you might care to mention), with perhaps a light dusting of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The anthology element consists of the same finely-wrought stupidity connoisseurs of the Dupieux canon will be familiar with: the first story concerns two couples who rent a cottage for a short break, only for one of the women to discover an authentic 1930s 'Thinking Helmet' in the cupboard. She pops this on and is instantly consumed with detached contempt for her husband and friends. Naturally, the helmet gets stuck on her head, and... well it doesn't end well, anyway.

It's probably worth making it absolutely clear that while parts of this film sound like the stuff of children's TV – children's TV made by people on drugs, anyway – there is a very substantial level of what the BBFC have termed 'comic gore'. This is certainly the case with the next major story, which is about a woman whose grown-up nephew gets stuck in an industrial grinder at the facility she manages. Various attempts to free him just result in him gradually getting more and more pulped, with him declaring all the time that he feels absolutely fine. And it gets sillier and sillier and gorier and gorier as it goes on.

In the end the film basically gives up on anything resembling a coherent plot, or indeed letting everyone involved tell their scary story, and just opts for... anything that crosses Quentin Dupieux's mind, I expect. One of the stories is actually narrated by a fish that Benzene has caught in the nearby lake, a little girl tells her own scary story, which only lasts about thirty seconds, it turns out that Didier the drooling rat is having a secret affair with one of the members of Tobacco Force, another of the team gets on the wrong side of the woman living in their fridge...

The question, probably, is whether this is just an example of a very clever man playing stupid, or authentic and sincere stupidity. Or at least silliness – either way, this is a profoundly stupid or silly film, which seems to be cheerfully open about that fact. The special effects aren't just bad, they are ostentatiously and proudly bad; the Didier the rat puppet and the various monster suits are intentionally awful. (The gore effects, by contrast, are actually reasonably convincing, although their context is also frequently absurd.)

Despite the ramshackle nature of the plot, Dupieux manages to get some very funny performances from his ensemble cast – Adele Exarchopoulos and Gregoire Ludig (who were both in Mandibles) turn up in the segment about the Thinking Helmet, and there are some good turns from the various members of the Tobacco Force (one thing which may get lost on international audiences is the fact that playing the absurd superheroes are a collection of acclaimed and distinguished French actors like Gilles Lellouche and Anais Demoustier).

Coming up with any kind of coherent critical position about a film like

Smoking Causes Coughing

is a challenge – once you've noted the film's influences, the fact that it's ridiculous, and also very funny, you find yourself running out of things to say apart from just spoiling more of the best jokes in it. It is, perhaps, the purest comedy that Dupieux has made to date – although I confess I haven't seen all of his work. Rubber was largely a deconstruction of film narratives, verging on the post-modern, while Deerskin had something (superficially silly) to say about the male psyche and midlife crises. Mandibles was a (marginally) more conventional story which managed to be surprisingly touching in its depiction of friendship.

Smoking Causes Coughing appears to have no depth whatsoever – it's just a string of very silly jokes with no particular theme to them. Oh, there's a superhero spoof, and what might be a sort of horror spoof, then the story about the accident with the grinder which might be a spoof of a certain sort of family drama, but it's not like Dupieux appears to be attempting to put across any kind of thesis or moral argument – he's just revelling in his own silliness. It's the kind of film that might come across as tediously self-indulgent and smug if it weren't so weird and genuinely funny. No-one else is making films like Quentin Dupieux at the moment. The only thing I can compare Smoking Causes Coughing to is Monty Python's Flying Circus, which is not a comparison I make lightly – but I think the comparison is warranted. This film is a monument to the transcendent power of silliness.

Also Showing...

Tom Cruise defies the authorities, gravity, the ageing process and pretty much everything else going in Mission: Impossible 7A (7B is out next year, industrial action permitting). At the heart of the story is a hot-button story about a rogue AI that arguably pushes the franchise over into the realms of proper SF, but as ever it's all about the Maguffins, the rubber masks, and Cruise chucking himself about. This one is essentially more of the same, but with a greater emphasis on humour and the emotional bond between Cruise and his various sidekicks. What you're really going for, however, is the action choreography and particularly the stunts, which are astonishing. A superior blockbuster any way you slice it.

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