A French icon, up in smoke

In France, the law demands that Actor Jacques Tati quit smoking.

A man walks past a poster showing character Mr. Hulot, played by French actor/director Jacques Tati, smoking a windmill toy that replaces his emblematic pipe, in the metro in Paris April 17, 2009.

Paris –In a series of film comedies in the 1950s, among them “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” and “My Uncle,” the late French actor Jacques Tati created the iconic film persona of a quixotic, amiable nonconformist who blunders through life with a pipe clenched between his teeth.

What would Mr. Tati say now that his pipe has been censored? The Paris public transit system and the national railway recently refused to display posters for a Tati retrospective that showed him riding a scooter with his trademark pipe. The reason cited: A 1991 French law prohibits tobacco in advertising. France’s other iconic, smoky image – the hazy cafe – already evaporated in 2008 when smoking was banned from restaurants and public places. And now this.

Reaction to the poster ban ranged along a short continuum from ridicule to outraged accusations of “puritanism,” an especially potent insult in French cultural circles. What’s next? asked the left-wing daily newspaper, Libération. Should Tati’s motorized scooter be replaced with a more ecologically acceptable bicycle?

Other famous images of French personalities have also run afoul of the advertising restrictions. The writer André Malraux had his cigarette removed for a stamp issued in 1996. Jean-Paul Sartre’s cigarette was expunged for a poster advertising an exhibition on existentialism four years ago.

The organizers of the show, at the Paris Cinémathèque, came up with a whimsical alternative poster that certainly would have pleased Tati’s sense of the absurd. In place of a pipe, he is shown with an electric-yellow toy windmill protruding from his mouth.

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