News & Views » Guest Editorial

A phlegmatic masterpiece

'My cough' offers a deep look into the protagonist's soul



There are few opening scenes in the history of cinema that will match the introduction of "My Cough" in subtle textures and old-fashioned innocence: Here is my cough, the familiar but forgotten villain, barely audible over the din of a subway.

He is a light, quick explosion of air due to a faint itching in the throat. So soft is his entrance that we immediately see my cough as weak, harmless, inconsequential. It's a startlingly simple scene, and the summer heat that surrounds it seems to imply that my cough and his self-titled production will end here. Coughs do not thrive in the late summer, after all. Of course, we are wrong.

In the gripping narrative that follows, first unfolding as languid moments in the sultry heat, and then elevating to full-throttle hell-on-earth psycho-drama, my cough transforms from a meek afterthought in conversation into a raging lunatic capable of leaving all men broken and gasping for air. It is wildly frightening stuff, the kind of sick entertainment that leaves one feeling guilty for witnessing it in the first place. And then my cough eventually goes from whence he came, quieting, quieting, quieting, until we are left with mere traces of him that will perhaps never vanish from our soul.

"My Cough" is at once an authentic blockbuster and an overpowering, gut-wrenching work of art. And this is its star at his finest -- controlling, demanding, incapable of allowing others to engage in even the simplest of dialogue.

In one turning-point scene of "My Cough," wife Angelique unveils her feelings over breakfast: "I said, 'I love you.' Did you hear me?"

Of course, the response is my cough. Seemingly at the sound of Angelique's voice, my cough devilishly drowns out her sweet confession in a hacking, loogie-inducing spasm. It's so grotesque that any idea of love is quickly and sensibly forgotten. Things get worse from there.

At a work conference, the boss launches into his status-quo humdrum, and you can practically feel the tickle dying to get out. But my cough holds himself in until an infinite volley of throat-sore explosions is the only answer. My cough continues through dirty looks and, finally, the plea from a witness, the boss's right-hand man, "Why don't you just go get a drink of water?" It is a beautiful and tension-filled moment stolen by my cough and the now silly notion that a drink of water could actually calm this savage beast.

IN FACT, MY COUGH is just beginning his rampage. In a startling montage that unreels almost too quickly to acknowledge, my cough is labeled viral (read: no antibiotics); it spreads to family and even unwitting victims caught in an elevator; it leaps to their friends, and their friends; it rattles windows and the eardrums of bystanders who are blocks away. My maddening cough echoes everywhere, an anti-heroic giant set loose in the night, booming to the soundtrack of its own making.

Even over-the-counter remedies seem useless against my cough's powers. Their only value seems to be that they dope up the taker so that he hardly realizes he is still coughing, doubled up, now gagging, his stomach muscles tearing and small bits of yellowed spit drooling onto his seersucker from the corners of his chapped mouth.

Then, just as my cough reaches apparent victory, he does what we feared he'd never do. He retreats, slowly, so as not to bring attention to himself. Here is the star-making moment -- my exquisitely understated cough, previously so grand in gesture that he seemed to be demanding an Oscar, suddenly delivers the spotlight to others again, allows them to actually speak when he is in their presence, merely punctuating their sentences with the occasional jag.

"My Cough" draws out toward the end, a bit too long. But we've sacrificed so much by this point that the extended ending seems a sadistic indulgence. Finally, we receive the resolution.

"It sounds like your cough is getting better?" Angelique asks in bed, casually.

Yes, my cough is getting better. And the lingering brilliance of his performance is that when he finally does leave, for the last time, we never realize it. Every new day seems to be lived with the nightmare of his havoc-wreaking return. He's just playing a game -- a killer lurking behind a hockey mask in a closet -- and soon he will burst in, hacking away at us without mercy.

That is what one remembers upon experiencing "My Cough." It's what can't be forgotten long after we've fallen asleep. Just when you thought it was safe to breathe another's air again ... fall is here, and we're in his grippe.

Jamie Allen is an Atlanta-based writer. His column, Rocket Science, appears occasionally.

Add a comment