In the Paris Métro, Even Dead Legends Can't Smoke

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Guillaume Clement / AFP / Getty

A woman looks at the poster of the movie Coco avant Chanel on April 21, 2009 in Paris.

Even before France's 2007 ban on lighting up in public areas, smokers had been declared persona non grata in Paris' Métro stations, where they risk hefty fines if they venture the merest puff. Now, however, even people who support France's crackdown on smoking feel things may have gone too far. This week, the Métro refused to run posters advertising the new Coco Chanel biopic Coco, Before Chanel, which stars Amélie's Audrey Tautou, saying the photo that depicts the fashion legend with her trademark cigarette violates anti-smoking laws.

Whether it's "tobacco revisionism," as critics contend, or political correctness à la française, things have just gotten tougher for smokers in France — including those who've long kicked the habit in death. Métrobus, the company that handles display advertising for the Paris Métro and SNCF rail company, says it was obliged to refuse a poster for Coco, Before Chanel because it violates a 1991 law "prohibiting all direct or indirect advertising" for tobacco or alcohol in most public venues. Under that ban, Métrobus reasoned that the poster's shot of a pyjama-clad Tautou holding a flaming ciggie aloft in a typical pose of the real Chanel could be interpreted as an encouragement to light up. It's not like anyone in France ever needed much prodding to do that. But Métrobus decided to play it safe, and asked Coco's studio, Warner Bros., to airbrush the cigarette out or lose the ad. (See pictures of old tobacco ads.)

Warner Bros. opted for the latter — sort of. It replaced the 1,100 posters in its Métro campaign with alternative ones showing Tautou as Chanel sans tabac. The original ads won't go to waste — they have been deployed as planned beyond the confines of the Métro. But in refusing to alter its depiction of Chanel wielding one of her beloved cigarettes, Warner Bros. rejected a revisionist compromise that others have been forced to make.

Earlier this month, the Cinématheque Français in Paris was ordered by Métrobus to remove or mask another purported subliminal call to start smoking: legendary filmmaker Jacques Tati's equally legendary pipe. The Cinématheque's ad for its Tati exhibition uses a shot from the 1958 film My Uncle, featuring the filmmaker in his iconic pose: riding a Solex, decked out in felt hat and overcoat, signature pipe clenched between his teeth. Forced by Métrobus — and, claims the company, France's advertising law — to do something about the illicit pipe, the Cinématheque decided not to airbrush it out, but instead drew a yellow propeller over the bowl to turn it into a child's pinwheel.

In doing so, the Cinématheque explained in a statement, it "ensured that the law is respected and that, above all, everyone realizes the absurdity of this substitution." Cinématheque officials aren't alone in their annoyance. Unions representing French film directors and critics issued a joint denunciation of what they called "unbearable revisionism" behind the moves and "censorship" of the beloved Tati's much-adored pipe.

Similarly, Socialist politician Claude Evin — the former health minister who authored the 1991 law behind the current rumpus — lamented the "ridiculous" efforts to erase signs of the very real smoking habits Tati and Chanel had in their lifetimes. Asked by reporters if she supported Métrobus' application of the law, current Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot replied in alarm, "Ah non, I'm not for taking Jacques Tati's pipe away from him!"

But Chanel and Tati aren't the first historical figures with (in)famous smoking addictions to have their cigarettes posthumously confiscated. In 1996, for example, France's postal service issued a stamp of French culture and political icon André Malraux using a well-known photo of him — though only after the smoldering butt visible in his hand in the original had been removed.

And in 2005, France's National Library used a celebrated shot of Jean-Paul Sartre to advertise its "Controversies" exhibit, but first airbrushed the ubiquitous clope from between his tobacco-stained fingers. In the end, the altered picture wound up joining the other controversial photos in the exhibition, after detractors noted the irony of the library's effort to erase that ever-present existential detail from the philosopher's life.

Despite the gnashing of teeth all this tampering has prompted, the debate is sure to continue. After all, British director Guy Ritchie will presumably have to feature a pipe in ads for his upcoming movie about Sherlock Holmes, due out in France next year. And promising to be even more inflammatory, marketing will soon start on French director Joann Sfar's film about late French signer Serge Gainsbourg, a pop hero whose bad boy image was built on lavish public displays of tobacco and alcohol abuse. Good luck banning that.

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