For no apparent reason, at the start of Rubber (2010), perhaps Quentin Dupieux’s best-known film, a sheriff pops out of a car trunk, approaches the camera, and launches into a monologue questioning certain nonsensical happenings in movies. “All great films, without exception,” he explains, “contain an important element of ‘no reason.’” “The film you are about to see today,” he continues, “is an homage to the ‘no reason’—that most powerful element of style.” He then gets back into the trunk, and the car drives off. The film we then proceed to see, following an abandoned tire that digs itself out of the sand and goes on a killing spree as it rolls across the California desert, for sure doesn’t make a lick of sense. Yet it’s quite possibly the director’s most commercial film to date. And if Rubber is an homage to irrational occurrences (as well as films like Steven Spielberg’s 1971 Duel), then so too are all of his others. Dupieux’s is a very specific type of absurdist humor whose wavelength you’re either not at all attuned to or entirely on, a joyful passenger on board for his hilarious and strange ventures into the unexplained.
Why, one may wonder, are his first two features called Nonfilm and Steak? “No reason,” Rubber’s sheriff would rightly respond. But they certainly did set in motion the filmmaker’s deadpan, farcical tone and impulse to toy with audiences, carrying forward the spirit of his earlier music videos. (Dupieux is, of course, alternately known as the electronic musician Mr. Oizo: his own music and that of others always play a significant role in his films.) Steak (2007) focuses on a youth gang called the Chivers, whose members wear red letterman jackets, guzzle milk, and are required to undergo facial plastic surgery. When Blaise (Éric Judor) is freed after mistakenly serving psych-ward time for pal Georges (Ramzy Bedia), who shot and killed three classmates seven years earlier, he wants to be part of the Chivers, like his only schoolfriend (yes, they are still students after all this time—remember, no point in asking “why?” in Dupieux’s universe). These characters introduced the type that would regularly populate Dupieux’s movies to follow: serious oddballs, sometimes dangerous, often full of heart—the exceptions being the shadiest of all policemen, who don’t stop at harassment, murder, and dealing drugs (with the goods hidden inside rat carcasses), inhabiting 2013’s Wrong Cops, a film in which innocent bystander Marilyn Manson, comes off as the coziest figure on-screen.
Dupieux’s most recent feature (his 11th), Smoking Causes Coughing, may appear kid-friendly, with its colorful team of superheroes inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Japanese serials from the ’80s and ’90s—and their cute robot sidekick, Norbert—at its center, but it’s actually his goriest offering yet. His films are hard to genre-identify, but beyond the obvious semi-unhinged comedy, many are laced with the creepily surreal, and it makes perfect sense that horror movies—’80s creature features in particular—and Buñuel account for some of Dupieux’s earliest attractions to cinema.
Known as the Tobacco Force, Smoking Causes Coughing’s league of avengers are named for and equipped with the power of toxins found in cigarettes—nicotine, benzene, ammonia, methanol, and mercury—using their lethal energies to take out their enemies. We witness their skills as they pulverize a supersized turtle, his blood and guts splattering all over them and the family who had pulled over on a nearby road so their young kid could pee. Unfazed by the carnage, the boy still considers them the absolute coolest. They reward his idolatry with the sage advice not to be a moron like his father, who has a cigarette dangling from his mouth (the priggish gang in Steak are also staunch anti-smokers). The quintet is very proud of their glorious teamwork, but their boss, Chief Didier (voiced by Alain Chabat), a gross, acid-drooling rat-puppet who somehow manages to be a total chick magnet, is not as enamored and informs them that he’s sending them on a retreat to strengthen their bonds in preparation for their biggest assignment yet: battling supervillain Lizardin (Benoît Poelvoorde), who soon plans to destroy the “sick planet” Earth.
It’s on their first night at their remote lakeside retreat, the team gathered around the campfire, that Smoking Causes Coughing reveals its anthology-film inspirations. Benzene (Gilles Lellouche) offers his take on the scary story, involving a thinking helmet that leads to enlightenment and murder, which opens the door for the film to play out others’ stories. But Dupieux departs from any tidy Amicus-style approach; Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier) even comments that Tales from the Crypt is not her type of thing. Instead, we get a grab bag of weird tales from unexpected narrators, the most succinctly disturbing coming from a little girl who joins them by the fire, and the most memorably gruesome from the mouth of the barracuda Benzene has caught and is grilling for lunch the next day.
It’s every bit as silly as it sounds, but as with all Dupieux’s typically concise works, its 77 minutes speeds by in a flash, and the movie settles into its rightful place among his quickly expanding filmography of ludicrous premises. The members of the Tobacco Force join the ranks of a modern-day Bartleby searching for his kidnapped dog, in the wonderful Wrong (2012); a group of bumbling Angelinos, including an aspiring director seeking out the perfect groan of pain for a horror movie, in Reality (2014); and the inept participants in a police-station murder interrogation that doubles as theater, in his first film made entirely in France, Keep an Eye Out (2018). But Smoking Causes Coughing serves as an especially fitting follow-up to last year’s Incredible but True, which plays like one of its fantastical stories in full: a couple, Marie and Alain (Léa Drucker and Chabat, in person as well as voice this time), buy a house that’s equipped with a life- and time-altering perk in the basement. The film also contains what may be the director’s most unforgettable gag: the malfunctioning mechanical penis of Alain’s boss, Gérard (Benoît Magimel). One of Dupieux’s innumerable talents is getting performers, many of them esteemed French and Belgian actors, to say and do the most ridiculous things.
Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin leads Dupieux’s 2019 Deerskin, his closest thing to straight horror after Rubber, as a cipher of an unhinged man who spends all of his money on a cropped, fringed deerskin jacket and begins making a movie of his attempt to rid the world of other jackets, as there’s only space for his killer vintage style. At first, it involves matter-of-factly stealing away with people’s coats in his trunk. (The car trunk, with its mysterious possibilities, seems to hold a special place in Dupieux’s films, making its most prominent appearances not only here and with the cop in Rubber and a thought-to-be-dead body in Wrong Cops but also in 2020’s Mandibles—his softer, more disarming story of two dimwits who find a giant insect in the trunk of a car they’ve stolen. One would like to believe that he’s a Repo Man fan.) Later, Dujardin’s character becomes more extreme, slaying other jacket-wearers with a sharpened ceiling-fan blade.
But amid all the freaky elements and unsettled vibes, the writer-director-composer-editor-cinematographer Dupieux is first and foremost committed to making people laugh. In today’s world, we are beyond lucky to have a filmmaker who not only dreams up these amazingly ridiculous scenarios but actually follows through on bringing them to life for some much-needed goofy enjoyment. The sheriff in Rubber’s justification for Dupieux’s somewhat deceptive “no reason” mantra is that “life itself is filled with ‘no reason.’” And at the end of the day, nothing could make more sense.
High-concept, no-frills horror is writer-director-editor-composer Andy Mitton’s modus operandi.
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