LE PETOMANE: FIN DE SIÈCLE FARTISTE (Igor Vamos, 2000)
By Mike White
Throughout Baz Luhrmann's MOULIN ROUGE I held hopes that I might catch a glimpse of Le Petomane. If there were one forum for an appearance of this Moulin Rouge performer, Luhrmann's lurid portrayal of the famous Parisian nightclub would be it. Alas, while Le Petomane finds brief mention in the audio commentary of the MOULIN ROUGE DVD, this entertainer's work might still be too fantastic to believe.
At an early age, Joseph Pujol discovered that he had an unusual talent. He could take in a large amount of water into his bowels. He had a remarkable ability to intake fluid and, he learned, air. Years later, Pujol came to entertain his companions with his prowess of passing gas. More than simply farting, Pujol was a "fartiste," able to expel tonal sounds from his anus with skill and precision. Pujol billed himself as "Le Petomane" (roughly translated into "farting mania") and found work at the Moulin Rouge where he would perform an hour-long show every evening to a packed house. Pujol would use his abilities for-among other things-music (either simply blowing his "butt trumpet" or attaching a rubber hose to blow air into a flute), smoking cigarettes, and blowing out candles.
Igor Vamos's documentary discusses Le Petomane and the era in which his career thrived. Pujol found his calling during the Belle Époque; a time when art and culture flourished in Paris while an infantile industry started to grow. Vamos employs interviews with several tiresome cultural historians who attempt to delineate the societal ramifications or Freudian implications of Pujol's act. Fortunately, Vamos also includes interviews with a musicologist and a crazed collector of Petomane paraphernalia.
Utilizing archive material such as posters, illustrations, and photographs of Le Petomane along with dozens of cleverly juxtaposed images of Paris and early silent movies, Vamos keeps his film visually stimulating. The inclusion of actual footage of Le Petomane made under the auspice of Thomas Edison's early kinetophone comes with a wonderful tale of Edison's planned experiments with "Odorama." Upon learning of Edison's hopeful inclusion of an "olfactograph," Pujol became incensed as his musical emissions held no scent to speak of!
Despite often obtuse commentary by cultural critics who making farting and queefing a political act, LE PETOMANE stands as an important statement about an artist whose work often defies "good taste." Not only do Le Petomane's talents seem fantastical, Vamos's film has managed to defy credibility as well. Lazier journalists have labeled the film a "mockumentary" rather than taking the time to research the subject's veracity!
With all of the appropriated footage Vamos uses during LE PETOMANE, it's lucky that the director decided against usage of the 1983 Pasquale Festa Campanile film, IL PETOMANE. This Italian work relates a fictionalized account of Pujol. Starring Ugo Tognazzi as the elderly fartiste, the filmmakers may have had some grand aspirations but IL PETOMANE suffers from a petite budget. For example, the interior of the Moulin Rouge bears little more than a cheap proscenium and a few dozen tables and chairs-like everything else in Campanile's film, it looks entirely flat and overly lit.
After an absurd amount of conversation between Le Petomane and his back-up band, the film moves into more tedious territory by introducing a love story between Pujol and a cello player (Mariangela Melato). As if things can't get worse, the movie becomes something of a precursor to THE PEOPLE VERSUS LARRY FLYNT with Petomane's performances protested and the artist falling under physical attack (having his ass branded). There's an obscenity trial, which suggests that Victorianism found support in Paris. Before it's all over, Le Petomane uses his flatulence to incite a conference of world leaders-"speaking" to the absurdities of war!
Overall, IL PETOMANE gives the impression that the filmmakers were attempting to use the strange skills of the fartiste for their own agenda. His talents are subordinate to the boorish story. If you like your farting political, stick with Vamos's film.