In Paris at the close of the nineteenth century there emerged a highly individual stage performer, Joseph Pujol (Leonard Rossiter). His talent was not one shared by the typical music hall artiste, and he only discovered its popularity quite by accident. He had done it in the army for the amusement of his fellow troops, but he had not dreamed he could make a career out of it. And what was this talent? Pujol could fart on demand and within an extraordinary range...
Joseph Pujol was a big star in his day, although now he is almost utterly forgotten, so this short tribute film, lasting just over half an hour, can only be welcomed by those who enjoy the more outlandish forms of entertainment. Although farting is generally held to be funny these days, and rare is the comedy film aimed at a broad audience that doesn't include at least one instance, the movies took a while to catch on. There were no farts in Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy films, for example, and the average Doris Day movie would not include the sound of someone letting one go.
Peter Sellers had offered a fart joke to the world in a Pink Panther sequel of the seventies, but it took Leonard Rossiter to raise it to something like high art thanks to a sympathetic script from legendary humourists Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who had written for Tony Hancock and created Steptoe and Son. The contrast between Rossiter's professional and proper demeanour and the nature of his act is at the heart of the humour, and seeing the star in something closer to his Reginald Perrin than his Rigsby role just makes it funnier.
The film takes the form of a biography, following Pujol from his days after leaving the army and rejecting his father's bakery profession to go on the stage, where he scraped a living in the provincial theatres until one night he farted onstage. Hearing Rossiter claim "I am an anal impressionist" is very amusing, and once Pujol had established his act he signed an exclusive contract with the Moulin Rouge where he regaled delighted audiences with his impersonations. However, while the film has its share of laughs, it does turn surprisingly poignant in its final stages as Europe is plunged into war and "Le Petomane" realises his straight-faced frivolity is out of place. There is a feature length Italian film of the man's life starring Ugo Tognazzi, but the British version tells you all you need to know; it's an eccentricity, but there's a charm here that you wouldn't expect given the subject matter.