Boston Underground Film Festival 2023: Smoking Causes Coughing and Lots and Lots of Laughs

Photo Courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival

Currently faced with the nonstop onslaught of Hollywood’s dwindling imagination, I constantly feel force-fed nostalgia for growing up in the age of Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, and fantastic comic book stories. I’ll admit it’s nice to revisit the past, but most of the time, these films feel like a continuous cash grab by movie studios with zero respect for the content and a love of merchandise licensing. Enter Quentin Dupieux’s Smoking Causes Coughing, a hyperbolic satire explicitly aimed at the retro fondness for our youthful fixations and our inability to move on from them.  

Ammonia is touching Nicotine as both stare past the camera.
Image Courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival

Smoking Causes Coughing Presents itself as an over-the-top Power Rangers knock-off but with the look and technology of something much older. I mean, Power Rangers itself was intercut with scenes from Super Sentai. There is obvious inspiration taken from Ultraman and Godzilla movies throughout, so the spacesuit style of Dupieux’s Tobacco Force avengers almost feels like a double dig at nostalgia building on top of nostalgia. Dupieux uses this against the viewer and offers up what could be the funniest film I’ve seen in years. Its resounding creativity reminds me of Álex de la Iglesia’s retrofuture film Acción Mutante, which owes a lot to comic books, George Miller’s Mad Max, and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to create an outlandishly comical metaphor for classism and media spin.

Tobacco Force is a five-member monster-fighting squad of Earth-protecting heroes who each have anti-Captain Planet abilities. When combined, the team explodes gigantic mutant animal creatures with the powers of the cigarette carcinogens they’re named after, Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), and Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi). The Tabacco Force is accompanied by an unfeeling robot they all love, who, in parodic sitcom form, gets replaced and forgotten about after his mission ends, and led by Chef Didier (voiced by Alain Chabat), a large Master Splinter resembling puppet who also acts as a Charlie’s Angels Bosley reference. Despite his rat-like appearance and the constant ooze dripping from his jaw, Didier is something of a womanizer, attracting all of the women he interacts with in the film. After the members have a performance issue in the field, Didier sends the Tobacco Force on a lakeside retreat to a secluded underground facility for cohesive team building before battling the most challenging villain they’ve ever faced, Lézardine (Benoite Chivot). 

That’s when Smoking Causes Coughing takes a sharp right turn into an almost anthological format by offering encapsulated campfire stories about headwear that causes overthinking to the point of inflicting murder, workers apologizing to their employers after being seriously injured, and fishes with consciousness appalled by what humans are dumping in rivers and streams. The calamitous film almost has a sketch comedy approach but stays tethered to a central narrative while Dupieux debuts ideas he probably couldn’t turn into full features.

A man in a bright floral shirt speaks to a woman in a sleeveless bright teal blouse standing beside him.
Image Courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival

A thematic intertwining of impending death is showcased throughout the film’s generational nostalgia aspects, where the end of the world is a near-constant occurrence while referencing the popularity of superhero escapism in trying times. There has been plenty to fear between COVID-19 and the Russian-Ukrainian war these last few years. When the film returns to a linear storyline, the emergence of Lézardine proposes the typical superhero scenario with Chivot channeling a Putin-esque vibe in a room that screams Deathstar.

If you’ve followed any of my festival coverage over the last few years, then you know, in addition to horror films, I tend to steer myself toward some of the more off-center genre films. From the silliness of a movie like Cult Hero or the bizarre and twisted Good Boy, I love weird, out-there cinema, and no one is doing it better than Quentin Dupieux has over the last two decades. Dupieux first hit my radar when a sentient tire inflicted unimaginable terror in Rubber and has continued to earn my admiration with dark comedies about killer leather jackets, giant flies, and time-bending portholes. The director is one of the best absurdist filmmakers working, embedding fantastic underlying themes in his farces. Dupieux has consistently blown me away with his blend of humor, horror, and human nature, but Smoking Causes Coughing might actually be his best film to date and feels destined to become a cult hit. 

Mercury talks to the robot in Smoking Causes Coughing
Image Courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival

Going into the movie at the Boston Underground Film Festival, I was super excited. I’ve seen many of Dupieux’s films but never in the theater, and after the credits rolled, I was so glad Smoking Causes Coughing claimed that first-time title. I had seen and laughed my ass off through the trailer, but having this experience with two-hundred other like-minded souls was a spectacular treat. Smoking Causes Coughing is laugh-out-loud hilarious from start to finish, offering genre fans (literal) buckets of blood, nonsensical mischief, and genuine WTF moments. Hypocritical irreverence is sported through superhero PSAs and a general presence of nihilism as a grief stage for righteousness.  

Smoking Causes Coughing played on March 23 as a part of the program for The Boston Underground Film Festival. The festival runs from March 22 to March 26, and individual screening tickets can be purchased through the Brattle Theatre box office or the Boston Underground Film Fest website. 

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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