Review: ‘Smoking Causes Coughing,’ starring Gilles Lellouche, Vincent Lacoste, Anaïs Demoustier, Jean-Pascal Zadi and Oulaya Amamra

May 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Smoking Causes Coughing” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Smoking Causes Coughing”

Directed by Quentin Dupieux

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed cities in France, the sci-fi comedy film “Smoking Causes Coughing” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Five superheroes called the Tobacco Force, whose mission is to combat people who cause pollution from smoking, are sent on a team-building retreat while a lizard villain threatens to take over the world.

Culture Audience: “Smoking Causes Coughing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching quirky European movies that blend societal observations with bizarre comedy.

Oulaya Amamra, Vincent Lacoste, Anaïs Demoustier and Jean-Pascal Zadi in “Smoking Causes Coughing” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Smoking Causes Coughing” has some amusing satirical things to say about pollution and the concept of utopias. It’s not writer/director Quentin Dupieux’s best movie, and the ending is underwhelming, but most of the movie is entertaining to watch. Unlike his other films that have a overall cohesive narrative, “Smoking Causes Coughing” is more like a series of sketches compiled for a movie. “Smoking Causes Coughing” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and later played at other film festivals in 2022, including Fantastic Fest and AFI Fest.

“Smoking Causes Coughing” (which takes place in an unspecified future in unnamed cities in France) begins by showing a road trip being taken by an unnamed mother (played by Julia Faure), an unnamed father (played by David Marsais) and their teenage son Stéphane (played by Tanguy Mercier), who are passing by a remote desert-shrub area in their car. Stéphane wants to stop the car because he has spotted five “celebrities” he wants to meet: a group of “superheroes” named the Tobacco Force, who all dress in outfits that are similar to Power Rangers outfits, but in blue, white and gold.

When Stéphane and his parents stop the car, Stéphane runs closer to see the five members in this desert-shrub area. The members of the Tobacco Force have surrounded a giant mutant turtle called Tortusse (played by Olivier Afonso), who moves like a human, and are fighting this creature. Laser-like gas comes out of the Tobacco Forces’ fists until Tortusse explodes, with the body splatter flying in all directions, including on Stéphane and his parents. (Part of this scene is already shown in the trailer for “Smoking Causes Coughing.”)

This star-struck family is unfazed by being covered in gunky remains of an animal. They want to take photos with the Tobacco Force. All of the members willingly oblige and happily pose for pictures with these strangers who have gunk on their faces and clothes. And then this family gets back in the car and is not seen again for the rest of the movie.

The Tobacco Force’s five members, whose ages range from 20s to 40s, have a mission to save the world from pollution, specifically pollution from people smoking. They are also told there is a constant threat of villains trying to destroy the world. The villian who is their biggest threat is named Lizardin (played by Benoite Chivot), who is said to be much more dangerous than Tortusse. The Tobacco Force has a small robot sidekick named Norbert 500 (voiced by Ferdinand Canaud), who does all of the cleaning up after the Tobacco Force’s inevitable messes.

All of the members of the Tobacco Force are named after ingredients found in cigarettes. The oldest member of the Tobacco Force is Benzene (played by Gilles Lellouche), who acts as if he’s the leader of the group. Nicotine (played by Anaïs Demoustier) is flirtatious and bubbly. Ammonia (played by Oulaya Amamra) is sassy and assertive. Mercury (played by Jean-Pascal Zadi) is cautious and a married father of two underage children. Methanol (played by Vincent Lacoste) is the group’s quietest and youngest member. Benzene says that Methanol reminds Benzene of how Benzene used to be when he was Methanol’s age.

The Tobacco Force has to report to a boss named Chief Didier (voiced by Alain Chabat), who is usually just called Chief. This cranky boss looks like a human-sized rat and constantly has green ooze drooling from his mouth. The costumes in “Smoking Causes Coughing” are deliberately made to look like they’re from a tacky, low-budge sci-fi B-movie. For example, Tortusse’s costume looks like it’s ready to fall apart at any moment. Chief is obviously just a cheap-looking puppet.

A running joke in the movie is that Chief (who has a personality as slimy as the green ooze the drips from his mouth) is a ladies’ man who has no shortage of women in his bed. (He is seen with a different lover in every scene.) It’s the movie’s way of commenting on how power can be an aphrodisiac and can make someone look more attractive.

And not even Nicotine and Ammonia are immune to this attraction. Another running joke in the movie is that Nicotine and Ammonia both want to be the “favorite” employee of Chief and probably date him, but Nicotine and Ammonia don’t want to admit it to each other. Still, Nicotine and Ammonia sneakily try to find out what Chief says and does when he’s alone with the other woman. Nicotine and Ammonia also pretend not to be jealous when they see Chief with any of his girlfriends.

The Tobacco Force has been having some in-fighting recently, so Chief orders this quintet to go on a team-building retreat, which is also in a desert-shrub area. The best way to describe their living situation at this retreat is it looks like a high-tech camp. The group members are supposed to be by themselves at this retreat, but it should come as no surprise that they get some unexpected visitors.

A large part of “Smoking Causes Coughing” is about people sitting around a campfire and telling their scariest or most unusual stories. Benzene tells a story about two married couples—spouses Bruno (played by Jérôme Niel) and Agathe (played by Doria Tillier) and spouses Christophe (played by Grégoire Ludig) and Céline (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) going on a camping trip together. Someone in this group of spouses gets alienated from the other three people, and choas ensues.

“Smoking Causes Coughing” has a total running time of about 80 minutes, which is a good-enough length, because this movie doesn’t have much of a plot. The performances of the cast members are mildly engaging but not particularly outstanding, People should not be fooled into thinking that the “superhero” costumes are indication that “Smoking Causes Coughing” is an adrenaline-packed action movie. This is a film that is for viewers who like seeing movies with unusual characters, eccentric comedy and the appeal of some very unexpected things happening.

Magnet Releasing released “Smoking Causes Coughing” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on March 31, 2023. The movie was released in France on November 30, 2022.

Review: ‘Kompromat,’ starring Gilles Lellouche and Joanna Kulig

April 8, 2023

by Carla Hay

Gilles Lellouche (center) in “Kompromat” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)


Directed by Jérôme Salle

Russian and French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Russia and Estonia, the dramatic film “Kompromat” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A French diplomat living in Russia is falsely accused of child sex abuse, and he breaks out of jail to go into hiding and possibly try to prove his innocence. 

Culture Audience: “Kompromat” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching political thrillers, even if these thrillers stretch the bounds of credibility.

Joanna Kulig in “Kompromat” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Kompromat” delivers great suspense, and it benefits from an absorbing lead performance from Gilles Lellouche, but the movie becomes more far-fetched as it goes along. It weakens the intended message that everything in this drama could happen in real life. “Kompromat” is supposed to be “based on a true story,” but what mostly rings true is the conspiracy aspect of the story, not what happens after the main character escapes from prison. His prison escape is already revealed in the “Kompromat” trailer.

Directed by Jérôme Salle (who co-wrote the “Kompromat” screenplay with Caryl Ferey), “Kompromat” has a title that is the Russian word for documents used to destroy someone’s reputation. In the case of this story, the person whose reputation is destroyed is a French diplomat living in Irkutsk, Russia. His name is Mathieu Roussel (played by Lellouche), and he works as the director of the French Alliance, which is a cultural exchange between France and other countries. Some sections of “Kompromat” are told in flashbacks, so viewers have to put pieces of the narrative puzzle together.

Part of Mathieu’s job is promote French culture in Siberia, Russia. In the beginning of the story, Mathieu is well-respected by his colleagues, which include a woman named Michèle (played by Judith Henry), who is the cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Russia. Mathieu is shown giving a well-received speech, where he thanks Andrei Ivanovich (played by Mikhail Safronov), who is the equivalent to being Mathieu’s Russian counterpart. Mathieu is sought-after by the media, because a TV network wants to interview him.

As for his personal life, Mathieu and his wife Alice Roussel (played by Elisa Lasowski) have had a somewhat cold and distant relationship lately. Their marriage has become strained because Alice didn’t want to relocate from France to Russia. Alice really wants to move back to France, but Mathieu likes how things are going with his job in Russia.

Mathieu thinks the problems in their marriage aren’t serious enough where he and Alice will separate. Alice and Mathieu are both devoted parents to a daughter named Rose (played by Olivia Malahieude), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. The spouses also have a nanny named Julia (played by Larisa Kalpokaite), who works part-time for the family.

Mathieu makes a fateful decision to bring a French experimental performing arts show to a big Russian theater. There’s a homoerotic aspect to the show, when two shirtless men dance on stage and then kiss passionately. Even though there are only adults in the audience, Mathieu underestimates how conservative Russia is when it comes to public homosexuality. There are noticeable uncomfortable and disgusted reactions from several members of the audience. A few people walk out of the venue after seeing these two men kiss each other.

Mathieu knows this performance was not as well-received as he hoped it would be. He goes to a nightclub and gets drunk. One of the people he sees in the club is a young woman he was briefly introduced to in the venue’s foyer before the performance. Her name is Svetlana (played by Joanna Kulig), who works as a French-language teacher for the French Alliance.

Svetlana and Mathieu do some flirty dancing with each other at the nightclub. Someone at the nightclub who notices this flirtation is Dmitri Rostov (played by Mikhail Gorevoy, also known as Mikhail Gor), who has a brief conversation with Mathieu, by asking him if Mathieu thinks Svetlana is pretty. “Do you know her?” Mathieu asks.

Mathieu doesn’t find out until much later that Dmitri is Svetlana’s father-in-law. Svetlana is in a very unhappy marriage to Dmitiri’s abusive and insecure son Sasha Rostov (played by Daniil Vorobyov), who is an alcoholic. Sasha frequently accuses Svetlana of cheating on him. Dmitri and Sasha are in the same line of work, which is later revealed in the movie and which will have a direct effect on what happens to Mathieu and Svetlana.

Shortly after this performance and nightclub encounter, that’s when Mathieu’s troubles start. He is suddenly arrested without warning at his home, in front of Rose and Julia the nanny. In a police interrogation room, where Mathieu is handcuffed to a chair, he is told that he has been arrested for distributing child pornography and for sexually molesting Rose. Mathieu is in shock and vigorously denies the charges. “It’s impossible,” he says when told what he’s been accused of doing.

Mathieu gets put in a jail without bail and without being able to speak to an attorney right away. He’s in a jail cell with about 10 other men. One of the men, who is the obvious bully leader, demands that Mathieu tell him why Mathieu was arrested. Mathieu is smart enough to know that people arrested for sex crimes against children get the worst abuse in prison, so Mathieu lies and says he doesn’t know why he was arrested.

The inmate thug tells Mathieu: “There are three categories of men here: Men we respect, men we beat, and men we fuck.” The bully also warns Mathieu that there are ways to find out why Mathieu was arrested. Of course, the other inmates find out why Mathieu was arrested, which leads to scenes of Mathieu getting brutally attacked and humiliated.

With Michèle’s help, Mathieu gets a well-respected attorney named Mr. Borodin (played by Aleksey Gorbunov), who tells Mathieu some very bad news: The Russian government has framed Mathieu with false documents and has already decided that Mathieu will get 10 to 15 years in prison. This is information that’s also revealed in the “Kompromat” trailer, which shows about 80% of the movie’s plot.

A shocked Mathieu gets even more disturbing news when he finds out it wasn’t just the controversial homoerotic dance performance that got him in trouble with the Russian government. Someone very close to Mathieu betrayed him, in order to get him out of the way and fulfill a specific agenda. After Mathieu finds out about this betrayal, he doesn’t think he has anything left to lose, so he escapes from jail before going to trial. This jail escape is a plot development that’s also revealed in the “Kompromat” trailer.

The “Kompromat” trailer also reveals that Mathieu gets help from Svetlana in going on the run from law enforcement. Also shown in the trailer are some pivotal fight scenes that really should have been left out of the trailer. And so, if anyone sees the “Kompromat” trailer before watching “Kompromat,” then many things that should have been surprises have already been revealed.

The only things that the “Kompromat” trailer don’t reveal about the movie are (1) whether or not Mathieu gets captured after he goes on the run and (2) whether or not Mathieu and Svetlana become romantic involved with each other. The last third of the movie has some hard-to-believe occurences. For example, Svetlana is suspected of helping Mathieu, but she’s never put under the type of surveillance that she would get in real life. This lack of credibility doesn’t ruin the movie, but it does make the end of the film look phony.

However, there are many parts of “Kompromat” that are very realistic and harrowing, thereby making up for the flaws in the movie. Lellouche gives the type of engaging performance that makes it easy to root for Mathieu to get out of his nightmare situation and reunite with his loved ones. And if this movie is “based a true story,” then it’s based on an untold number of people who’ve been the victims of real-life kompromat situations.

Kulig as Svetlana also performs well in the movie, but Svetlana’s storyline has a very noticeable contradiction to lowers the movie’s credibility: Svetlana’s husband and father-in-law are controlling and have ways of spying on her, but Svetlana can also can slip away for extensive periods of time to travel with Mathieu for long distances. The ending of “Kompromat” looks like a compromise for the sake of an expected formula. But at that point in “Kompromat,” viewers should know that the movie has traded in realism for a heightened version of reality, in order to ramp up the action and suspense.

Magnet Releasing released “Kompromat” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 27, 2023.

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