I keep getting sucked into Quentin Dupieux’s madness and leaving disappointed

French director Quentin Dupieux makes comedies with concepts that are so silly, you’re certain you’ll at least have a trashy good time. But Eliza Janssen has given up hope, after checking out the half-assed Smoking Causes Coughing.

A psychokinetic tire makes people explode. A filmmaker spends two days trying to record the perfect groan of pain. A man getting slowly chewed to death by a grinding machine insists he feels fine. At once aggressively quirky and fashionably deadpan, these are the kind of premises and scenes that fuel French director Quentin Dupieux’s imagination.

The first of these descriptions sums up the reason his breakout hit Rubber caught the attention of film festival programmers and midnight movie fans in 2010; it’s a succinct high-concept idea, easily shared in a breathless buzz of B-movie delirium. Watching Dupieux’s films, however, is a different story. Once you’ve settled into the laissez-faire tone that blankets every one of the director’s movies, the surface thrills wear off. You leave more bemused than amused, unable to feel too critical since each production excuses its lack of oomph with trollish, too-cool-for-school detachment. These movies don’t care enough to be truly fun, or scary, or memorable; why should you care?

Despite my perceived lack of passion in his filmmaking, Dupieux happens to be very prolific, and so 2022’s Smoking Causes Coughing is by now his fourth-last film, arriving on streaming service Shudder as his latest three works continue to rattle around European film festivals. The comedy starts strong, with an excited kid spying on a team of Power Rangers-esque avengers battling a costumed turtle beast. These are the Tobacco Force, who chant their toxic names (“Ammonia!” “Methanol!” “Benzel!” “Nicotine!” “Mercury!”) as fumes fart out of their hands, using the negative energy of smoking to suffocate their goofy enemies. This opening scene takes pride of place in the film’s trailer, which wrongfully suggests to uninitiated Dupieux viewers that the movie will be some kind of whimsical French take on Galaxy Quest.

The frenzied sugar-rush feeling of Saturday morning kids TV feels like it could be an energising playground for Dupieux, or at least provide a funny contrast to his laid-back Gallic sensibility. All too soon, however, the squad’s revolting rat puppet boss sends them on a team-building retreat to “boost team spirit, the hallmark of Tobacco Force”. They arrive in a funky space-age underground dwelling and the film’s promise of sci-fi satire disappears into a melange of disconnected surreal sight-gags. A robot commits suicide. A reptilian space villain has dinner with his wife and child. A woman discovers a felt helmet that drives her to kill her friends.

This is where I feel like a jerk: we don’t expect or want an eccentric French director working with an indie budget to produce an epic OTT blockbuster. But his take on laser-blasting, rubber-suited silliness shouldn’t feel like such a throwaway, its true nature as a black comedy anthology film revealing a deficit of consistency and commitment. Smoking Causes Coughing digresses into maybe two and a half meta-fictional narratives, told by the bickering teammates around a campfire. Each feel more complete than their wacky, attention-grabbing framing device, but the film needed more of them to stand as a substantial collection. Mostly, they suspiciously resemble classic, elliptical Dupieux concepts that the director couldn’t be bothered to flesh out into a feature-length narrative.

Returning to the director’s name-making feature Rubber, it’s clear that he has excused himself of any responsibility to put in too much effort long ago. That film is framed by an in-film audience’s commentary, and opens with narration explaining that life, cinema, and this film in particular occur for “no reason”. Rubber didn’t make back its budget, but it put Dupieux’s name on the map, and the director has promised he’ll coast on that for as long as possible: “now I have that status I am not going to let it go. I am forcing the industry to take note: I keep saying I have another one and now here’s another one. At some point it will end, so I know it is now or never.”

Dupieux considers himself a cinematic master of the absurd, and there’s certainly a tendency in surrealism towards quantity over quality: Salvador Dalí produced almost 2000 paintings during his lifetime, nonsensical excess as a medium in itself, a mad canvas upon which we can project or challenge meaning. The painter is the subject of one of Dupieux’s latest experiments, in fact, and I fear it’ll feature much of the same self-congratulatory strangeness that gradually tired me here. Why are these characters so chill about a supermarket appearing inside their fridge, and yet they’ll comment “what the fuck, it talks?” at a chatty dead fish? You can feel the creator’s interest waning in novel concepts while they play out, puttering into easy gross-out denouements instead of truly unpredictable or hilarious punchlines.

In its most charming and unique moments, Smoking Causes Coughing feels like what would happen if you forced Serge Gainsbourg to watch Power Rangers for a week straight and harvested a screenplay from his dreams. And there are certainly parts that made me grin, such as the ooze-dribbling rat puppet being an unlikely sex symbol to the Tobacco Force’s female members. But when Dupieux’s next film promises similar insanity, I hope I won’t fall for it again. No matter how bizarre or compelling the one-sentence logline may be.