Writer-director Quentin Dupieux has been turning out deadpan genre pictures – something between spoof and theatre of the absurd – at a steady clip, from Rubber through Deerskin and Mandibles to Incredible But True. His latest film suggests that he has so many ideas on the boil that he needs to burn through them even faster than he is. This is primarily a weird low-budget skit on the Power Rangers franchise, with elements from such retro-items as V and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and Buckaroo Banzai) tossed in … but its superhero team, who take their code names from the harmful ingredients of cigarettes and combine their powers to give explosive cancer to rubber-suit monsters, are sent on a retreat to restore group cohesion and the time is passed by a lake telling scary stories, which could mostly be rough drafts of other Dupieux films that didn’t quite make it to feature length (at 77 minutes, this doesn’t have time for its oh-but-another-thing structure to grow wearisome).
Tobacco Force – Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Methanol (Vincent Lacoste), Nicotine (Anais Demoustier), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi) and Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra) – work out of a van, aided by a trundling robot who commits suicide and is replaced by an ureliable upgrade after the team have defeated a tortoise monster. Their boss (voiced by Alain Chabat) is a slime-drooling puppet rat, who looks more like Roland Rat from bygone UK TV than Splinter from TMNT and has the sex drive of one of Peter Jackson’s Feebles. Supervillain Lezardin (Benoiuut Poelvoorde – remember him from Man Bites Dog?) is planning to destroy the Earth next week, so the Chief wants Tobacco Force to have bonding holiday whether they like it or not … and they are sent to a lake with an underground base equipped with gadgets like a supermarket fridge (open the door and there’s a woman running a supermarket inside, though she won’t sell sleeping pills or have a drink with a lonely hero). Stories start to get told, by the Forcers but also by passersby (including a talking puppet barracuda) … and we meet a woman (Doria Tiller) who comes across a 1930s thinking helmet in a cupboard and gets too comfortable in it, a foulup worker (Anthony Sonigo) whose on-site mangling inconveniences his aunt (Blanche Gardin) even though he keeps insisting he’s fine being reduced to a set of talking lips in a bucket of gore, and other non sequitur blackout sketches.
While the team are squabbling, competing, getting hung up, questioning their own life choices (and the chief’s) and struggling with the new model robot’s general uselessness, Lezardin decides to bring forward his plans by a week. Is the Earth saved? Will the robot’s system update in time? Is taking up smoking a good idea at this point? Dupieux is a disarming filmmaker – there’s a wry shrug to his absurdist efforts which can be engaging or irritating depending on your taste (and mood) and his range of reference (mostly 80s schlock) is similar to quite a few other people working in the genre at the moment (cf: Turbo Kid, Psycho Goreman) but somehow gets recombined into pictures that are uniquely his. A real strength of Dupieux’ work is that in the middle of all the absurdities, he finds space for credible side characters – in the talking lips episode, Raphael Quenard plays a ‘your problem boss’ site foreman who contrives to make an appalling situation work with passive-aggressive malice … while Adele Exarchopoolos (from Blue is the Warmest Colour) is hilarious as the dim bulb who doesn’t know how to react to the woman in the thinking hat turning into a slasher killer on a weekend getaway.