Have you ever wondered where the American sex comedy, pioneered by Porky’s and canonized with Dude, Where’s My Car? and American Pie, came from? In the 1970s, there was American Graffiti, Summer of ’42, and John Landis’ awful films, but boys (or man-boys) desperate to score hadn’t been a wacky comedic setup since Shirley MacLaine made minor masterpieces in the 1960s, with films like What a Way to Go!, Ask Any Girl, and All in a Night’s Work. In those films, men like Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum, and Gig Young lost their wits around MacLaine, tongues wagging like dogs, and indeed it’s that same face that you’ll find on nearly every poster for a comedia sexy all’italiana. If Edwige Fenech is playing a scantily-clad cop or nurse, trust that Alvaro Vitali will be illustrated behind her, eyes wide and mouth agape.
Unfortunately, comedy rarely travels in the cinema: unlike the abundant giallo and poliziotteschi restorations available from boutique home video labels like Arrow and Severin, there are no English dubs or even subtitled transfers of the Italian sex farces of the second half of the 1970s that led directly to one of the most prominent genres in American cinema of the last 40 years. One can only imagine how many funny movies we’re missing simply because they don’t have the export appeal of what plays at Cannes, Venice or Berlin. But what about the biggest hits of the year in France? Germany? Toni Erdmann is the only German comedy in memory that’s made any impact in the English-speaking world; even a director as feted and accomplished as the late Marco Ferreri, a now-underrated Italian master of the highest level, has fewer than four of his 27 films in print on home video in English editions.
Quentin Dupieux is an exception, and a welcome refresher for American arthouses leaden with Europe’s most drab and “accessible” material fit for export. Smoking Causes Coughing is his latest, now in limited release after debuting at Cannes last year. I first heard of Dupieux in high school, when his breakout Rubber came out—I never saw it, but I’ve remembered the premise ever since I read it: a tire comes to life, or has a life of its own. The three Dupieux films I’ve seen in the last couple of years—Keep an Eye Out, Incredible But True, and Smoking Causes Coughing—all have equally concise and exciting setups, and an eye for production design, props, and costumes completely absent from other European “comedies” like Triangle of Sadness, or almost everything in cinemas now: poorly-lit and decorated by a robot.
Smoking Causes Coughing follows a French superhero team called the Tobacco Force—we meet them when a family stops on a highway and their son sees the Force training down a valley. He explains to his incredulous father who these spandex-fitted fighters battling a giant turtle monster are, and although they’re all named after elements in a cigarette (Mercury, Nicotine, Ammonia, Benzene, Methanol), their duties are not exclusive to Gitanes and Gauloises. One of the Force members sees the dad smoking, and tells the son discreetly that he better not imitate his father: “Smoking isn’t cool.” After that, the team’s contacted by their boss, a rat puppet drooling green slime just like Jabba the Hutt, who sends them on a retreat so that they can get better. The Force have to deal with their droids, the first suicidal, the second a bit slow, and their rat captain’s constantly changing bed companion, all beautiful women who some in the Force become incredibly jealous of.
Keep in mind this is a rat puppet drooling slime—but in a very nice bed and robe.
Smoking Causes Coughing is everything missing from American comedies and most movies: unforgettable costumes, powerful objects and props, unexplained absurdity, mysterious events, people acting like idiots. It’ll probably play a week here in Baltimore, maybe two, but Dupieux’s films are relatively well-represented on home video in the United States. As long as Hal Hartley can’t raise enough money to make another film, there’s a Frenchman with a new movie every year working in the same vein. Sacrilegious? Maybe, hardly—who knows in a cinema landscape so starved and dry in every direction. This is one of the only comedies you can see in a theater right now!
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith