SMOKING CAUSES COUGHING Interview: Quentin Dupieux Reveals How He Comes Up With Crazy and Funny Ideas
Quentin Dupieux made his statement of principles with the opening monologue in Rubber, his notorious self-aware movie starring a tire that comes to life and then uses its telekinetic powers to kill animals and humans.
Paraphrasing said speech, for Dupieux all great films have absurd elements, since life itself is like that. His cinema is a constant and hilarious homage to the “no reason.”
Currently, with two movies presented last year – Incredible But True and Smoking Causes Coughing, both excellent – Dupieux continues to prove that he is, quite possibly, the best exponent of absurd humor working today.
Smoking Causes Coughing starts out as his peculiar version of the stories that follow a team of superheroes. But here the concept of the avengers is linked to tobacco, nicotine and cancer. In an interview with ScreenAnarchy, Dupieux affirmed that it was joyful “making something abnormal, like superheroes usually are about positive stuff. I found it was funny to build the team on something really bad for health, like tobacco. It was just a twisted idea.”
The Tobacco Force – Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Ammoniaque (Oulaya Amamra), Mercure (Jean-Pascal Zadi) and Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier) – is led by Didier, a talking “lady killer” rat; they also have the support of the robot Norbert 500. These heroes often dispatch kaijus violently to save the day. Also, one of their great enemies is a reptilian extraterrestrial (Benoit Poelvoorde) who wants to destroy the Earth.
Smoking Causes Coughing evokes old science fiction and tokusatsu: Japanese movies and series with special effects, such as Godzilla, Ultraman and Super Sentai. “The only connection I have with these Japanese series is from childhood: I used to watch this kind of stuff on TV when I was a kid in the 1980s. But that’s it, I never watched them again,” revealed Dupieux.
Besides adding a couple of kaijus to his oeuvre characterized by practical effects, Dupieux continues to use puppets; remember that the mascot of his musical facet, Mr. Oizo, is the charismatic yellow puppet Flat Eric. His interest in puppets also emerged when he was little: “I’ve always been fascinated by these glove puppets, I remember when I was a kid shooting some stupid short films with a sock I had, trying to make the sock talk,” recalled the musician and filmmaker.
Coincidentally, the day of our talk, the trailer for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Once & Always premiered a few hours before. It’s the new installment for Netflix of that American franchise inspired by Super Sentai. When asked about the process for creating his main kaiju turtle, Dupieux made a biting comparison:
“I just saw a trailer for a new Power Rangers movie. These people have probably 50 times the budget I had, but still their costumes suck, they’re terrible, they’re just stupid.
"My movies are pretty small in terms of budget; for this one, I know we’ve put a lot of work and a lot of money in these special effects and costumes, to make the movie enjoyable for the viewer and to make the costumes look great and not just funny. There’s no CGI, we had to design the creatures, then the special effects guys had to build these huge costumes.
"Same goes for the robots; the robots you see were actually remote controlled and so they were really moving and living. It’s a comedy but, at the same time, the visual aspect was very important to me.”
At this point, it would be illogical and naive to expect a Dupieux movie with a foreseeable development. Smoking Causes Coughing focuses on a mandatory break for the protagonists, who need to recover cohesion and teamwork. Not only that: once they arrive at the place for their retreat, the film ends up concentrating on scary stories that one of the heroes and other unexpected narrators share with the others.
The result is a sort of anthology of those horror tales ideal for "telling around a campfire." In this regard, Dupieux commented that his idea “was to create a new structure, something that goes in different places, that’s why I explored storytelling. It was the main idea at the start of the writing, to create a new storytelling structure, and it became the subject of it: it became a story about people telling stories.”
In these passages of the movie, there are some conversations between the characters that led me to question Dupieux about two topics relevant to the world of cinema. On the one hand, the debate about how to consume cinema today, either at the movie theater or in the "comfort" of your home. Dupieux assured: “I’m just like everybody, I love to go to the theater and I’m pissed when the crowd is making noises, I’m pissed when someone is using their phone, I’m pissed when someone is actually eating next to me.
"But I always go and I still go because it’s like doing something. When you watch something at home, it doesn’t feel like doing something, you’re just burning two hours, which is fine, which I do all the time and I enjoy it, but it feels like doing nothing.
"When you go to a movie theater, maybe you’re going to meet someone, maybe you’re going to have a drink, maybe you’re going to leave because the movie sucks, whatever, you’re doing something and you’re not in your underwear watching something at home. Which, again, I think it’s fine, I enjoy to do this also, but I think we need to go out, we need to do stuff.”
The other issue had to do with the rise of excessive political correctness, mocked in the movie. For Dupieux, in France they’re “a bit late on this but it’s coming, I guess in a few years we will be exactly where you are now, where basically you have to be careful on some subjects, which is something I don’t understand for real.
"It’s like this stupid question: Is it OK to laugh at every subject? To me, it depends on who is doing the joke really, it depends on how the joke is made: Is it smart or is it dumb? Is it aggressive or is it just for the fun of it? It’s a complicated subject, so I have no position. I just know that making fun of the human being and all these crazy concepts we develop, is actually fun. To me it’s not political, I’m making fun of human beings.”
The "stories within the story" represent Dupieux's cinema in its purest form: absurdity, fun and gore. In one, a helmet causes the mind of a woman (Doria Tillier) to transcend the limitations of the human body, before ending with explicit violence.
Another tale takes us to look at the real horror of water pollution, from the perspective of a fish. Another of the stories, in fact, is told by a barracuda while it's being cooked!
It’s still impossible not to laugh with the inexhaustible occurrences of the creator of characters like that guy obsessed with deerskin clothing (Deerskin), the friends who intend to train a giant fly (Mandibles) and the employer who shows off an electronic penis (Incredible But True).
One of the highest points of Smoking Causes Coughing is, without a doubt, what the barracuda narrates. It's reminiscent of the dismembered Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “I love Monty Python a lot, they’re obviously part of my culture, so yes, it’s pretty much normal if you thought about Monty Python. But I also love the Zucker brothers and Luis Buñuel."
The story involves a young man (Anthony Sonigo) who at all times maintains a positive attitude, despite the fact that he's trapped in a crushing machine. Regardless of his aunt's (Blanche Gardin) attempts to save him, his situation goes from bad to worse. And the nonsense goes on and on, although... I won't spoil the surprises for you.
How does Dupieux come up with these kinds of crazy and funny ideas? “I don’t know!,” claims the filmmaker, “it’s just there when I’m writing, probably because I trust my subconscious and I’m not trying to think too much. Usually I don’t look for crazy ideas, they come to me. Which means I find these types of ideas when I’m actually not thinking, if it makes sense.”
Smoking Causes Coughing is now in theaters and on demand, via Magnet Releasing.