Meet the man making chocolate farts

Christian Poincheval and the quest for fragrant flatulence


When I got into Christian Poincheval’s car last week, I half-expected it to smell like exotic fart. Poincheval, after all, is the 65-year-old Frenchman who made international headlines last year for developing a pill that claims to make flatulence smell pleasant. Chocolate-pleasant, but also rose- and violet-pleasant. For Valentine’s Day this year, he came out with a new ginger-scented variety (tagline: "May your sweetheart feel your love!"). He even has a powder for dogs.

I saw a tweet about Poincheval’s new ginger pill a few weeks ago, and immediately fell down an internet rabbit hole. What I found at the end could’ve actually been a Lewis Carroll character. A portly, red-faced Frenchman with a huge white beard and a black bowler hat, who seemed like some sort of hippie Da Vinci; a compulsive inventor-artist-musician living in the rural hills of northwest France. Who makes fart pills.

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Poincheval markets his pills under the name Pilule Pet — a French play on words that basically translates to "fart pill." They’re the latest in a long line of attempts to conquer what may be the most enduring of biological taboos, and they go for the jugular. As Benjamin Franklin once wrote: "Were it not for the odiously offensive smell accompanying such escapes, polite people would probably be under no more restraint in discharging such wind in company than they are in spitting or blowing their noses."

Pilule Pet promises to eradicate that unease, though I had my doubts. The website makes clear that the pills aren’t classified as drugs, and its clumsy design doesn’t exactly scream scientific credibility. Even the cheeky taglines and exaggerated photos make them seem more like prank stocking stuffers, if not snake oil. But the intrigue surrounding both the pills and their zany creator was enough for me to probe further.

After a few emails and phone calls, I finally got in touch with Poincheval, and we agreed to meet outside the train station in Alençon, about 130 miles west of Paris. It was there that I found him sitting Buddha-like in an old hatchback on a brisk Wednesday morning. I waved hello, grabbed the door, and a rush of nervous excitement ran down my body.

During the train ride from Paris, I had entertained visions of dosing with Poincheval in a chateau atop some pastoral landscape, drinking wine and farting Godiva over a fire. That never happened, because as I soon found out, it takes about a week for the Pilule Pet to take effect. But what I found instead was just as entertaining: a glimpse into the life and mind of an aging, tireless creator tucked away in a rural oasis, and unabashedly fascinated by everything around him.

As we drove from Alençon to the town of Gèsvres, where Poincheval lives (population: 532), he launched into a pretty sad account of the region’s decay. As across much of post-financial crisis France, industries here have been deserted, farms are struggling, and young people are leaving. Poincheval’s been living on a hilltop plot of land in this part of the country for 30 years now, a long period of stability for someone who grew up bouncing around France at the whim of his father’s military job. A self-described bohème, he moved to Paris after high school, where he made ends meet by playing music in the metro and picking up odd jobs in education and fashion. It was at a theater in Paris, in his early 20s, that he met Évelyne, with whom he would marry and form a nine-person musical group. (He on acoustic guitar, she on vocals.) The group, Les Poinchevaux, also lived together in a countryside commune for several years, when they weren’t playing their twangy brand of gypsy jazz at shows across France.

Things aren’t as crazy nowadays. He and Évelyne still play the occasional gig together, but he’s retired ("in administrative terms") and most of their time is spent at home — a small stone cottage nestled into a hillside along a one-lane road. I spotted it immediately, because it’s impossible to miss. Installed in the yard around it, and the lot directly across, are sinewy, sometimes creepy looking statues made of tin, plastic, and other garage floor materials, shooting out from otherwise empty green farmland. On the roof of an adjacent warehouse are installations that look like colorful, squiggly sperm.

"Yes, yes," Poincheval said as we pulled into the gravel driveway, letting out the first of many cackles. "It’s another world in there."

His first order of business was the fire, and he executed it with surprising grace, gliding around the red tile floor with logs in his arms, and relentlessly poking them into flames. I soon realized that it’s nearly impossible for the man to sit still. As he danced from one topic to the next — art, economic inequality, Charlie Hebdo — he paced deliberately in front of the fireplace, hands buried in the pockets of his bright blue overalls.

Poincheval's Inventions began with newspaper printed on toilet paper

A similar restlessness seems to have driven Poincheval’s professional life, though it’s hard to say what that is with any precision. He spent a quarter century playing and recording music with Les Poinchevaux, but he’s also worked in education and the media, maintaining his own radio show and starting a free local newspaper, L’Aggressif. For decades, he’s been creating sculptures and other installations under the name "Lutin Malin," which roughly translates as "Clever Goblin." When we met last week, he had just finished a 40-foot Santa Claus made of 16,000 plastic bottles for a local fair.

The inventions began, quite literally, as an offshoot of his newspaper. In 1999, Poincheval created a line of toilet paper with news articles printed on each sheet, for which he won a medal at the Concours Lépine, France’s annual inventors’ competition. From there, he went on to create another kind of toilet paper that folds into small Kleenex-like packets, though he ventured into non-scatological areas, as well: a Swiss Army knife-like contraption for garden tools, and an eco-friendly coffee packaged in paper juice boxes.

His creations have been met with varying levels of commercial success and media attention within France, but Poincheval says he’s never been motivated by money. His cottage is small and rustic, and his clothes are vibrant, but simple. As I spoke with him about his life, he seemed most proud not of his inventions or the awards they’ve won, but of the significant revenue they’ve brought in to local charities. A portion of his toilet paper sales, for instance, went to an organization that trains dogs to help handicapped people. To date, he’s financed training for 15 dogs.

That’s not to say he doesn’t seek recognition (he does) or that he hasn’t gone to great lengths to commercialize his products (he has). But for him, the inventions are merely an extension of his art — a way to provoke thought, debate, and the occasional laughs.

"I’m convinced that everyone likes beauty — the rich, the poor, everyone," he said between pokes at the fire. "The person who doesn’t love beauty doesn’t exist… To put it simply, everyone likes to come."

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None of his inventions blur the line between art and product quite like the Pilule Pet. The fart pills were born, Poincheval says, after an especially heavy dinner with friends in 2004. The feast resulted in a chorus of particularly pungent flatulence, and that got his wheels turning.

Already an avid practitioner of homeopathic remedies, he began researching ingredients and spent three months testing different formulas with the help of a French laboratory. They finally arrived on the perfect combination of vegetable carbon, fennel, and other natural ingredients, and set about bringing their rose and violet pills to market.

"I wanted to undress the shame you feel when you fart at the table."

"I wanted to undress the shame you feel when you fart at the table," Poincheval explained to me, "the fear you feel that the fart may travel farther. I wanted to remove this complex, if you will."

That "complex" seems to be pretty well ingrained. Kirsten Bell, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia, published a cursory and admittedly lighthearted blog post last year about the anthropology of farting. To her surprise, she found very few academic studies on why farts can be simultaneously embarrassing, hilarious, or taboo across different cultures, though historical anecdotes suggest that their stench has something to do with it. A report from the 17th century, for instance, describes Papua New Guineans who were so offended by the smell of Dutch sailors’ farts that they thought "shame and contempt" had been brought upon them.

There may be other factors at play, Bell speculates, including sound and the perceived loss of control that accompanies every fart. But the idea of scentless, let alone perfumed flatulence raises compelling questions.

"I couldn’t tell if he was fully serious or if it was somewhat of a joke," Bell said after I sent her a link to Poincheval’s pill website. "But I was really intrigued by it, because what would a fart mean if it didn’t smell bad?"

Poincheval and his business partners admit that their cheeky marketing campaign makes it hard for people to take the product seriously, but that’s also part of the strategy.

"If that was your reaction then we’re doing well," Léon Fazakerley, a Franco-South African entrepreneur and Poincheval’s business partner, later told me over the phone. "I had the same reaction as you to start with, but from personal experience I can say it does work, and being a beer drinker myself, I don’t have the best of diets, maybe."

Fazakerley, 44, began working with Poincheval in 2007, when he helped him sell the toilet paper and the fart pills on eBay. At first, sales were moderate and limited only to France, where several major TV networks had covered them in reports. But business exploded late last year, after news of the chocolate pill was picked up by English-language media. During a 15-day period in December, they filled more than 2,000 orders — mostly to the US — and had to put the rest on back order for January. A lot of those are one-time buyers — likely for Christmas gifts or pranks — but there are repeat customers, as well, which Fazakerley points to as proof of their effectiveness. But others aren’t so sure.

"I have little doubt that the content of these tablets can produce a different gas profile," Anton Emmanuel, a consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital in London, said in a phone interview. "The scientific question that remains is whether you can produce enough of that gas to make it smell different."

Emmanuel notes that there are existing treatments that have been shown to help neutralize gas odors in some patients, but he says the notion of creating perfumed farts is scientifically "questionable," given the unique complexities of intestinal bacteria.

"It may help in some people, but it will be a very modest effect," he added, "and the majority of the people won’t feel any difference at all."

Poincheval acknowledges that the effect of the pills depends on dosage and individual diets, but he also says they have a larger, more societal purpose. "At their core, they provoke discussions, debate," Poincheval said, "and try to liberate the fart, which is something totally natural."

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Where Poincheval’s mind wanders next is anyone’s guess. As far as the pills go, Fazakerley is currently exploring exclusive distribution deals outside of France, while Poincheval begins thinking about the next scent — "a pill for summer," is all he would say. He’s also interested in applying the same homeopathic approach to human feces, though he’s not one to keep to a tight schedule.

"I’m like a leaf," Poincheval said over lunch at what seemed like the only restaurant in town, removing his hands from their perch atop his belly and waving them leaf-like over what was once a pork roast and a full carafe of red wine. "I just go where the wind leads."

After lunch, the as-yet unbroken wind led us back to his home, where the afternoon sun was streaming in through dusty windows. Poincheval picked up his guitar and began strumming a few folk songs as I collapsed into an ovular wicker chair. A few minutes later, Évelyne, his wife, returned home from giving a spoken-word poetry class to teenagers, as she does every week. She greeted me with warm eyes and a soft bonjour, her long gray hair pulled back behind her head. Then she took off her coat and started singing along with her husband, sliding in seamlessly and without hesitation — two aging, hippie lovers reunited at sundown in front of a fire that never seems to go out.

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Poincheval’s inventions likely won’t change the world. They may not even change many farts. But he doesn’t seem to care much, because that's not really what drives him. It’s in the exploration, the incessant tinkering, that he finds happiness. Life without it, he says, would be unthinkable.

"When people say we’ve tried everything — that’s just not possible!" he said. "We’ll never have tried everything, because it’s just an eternal cycle where everything is reinvented every day. We’re all just mutants."

As I left to catch my train back to Paris, Poincheval handed me a jar of fart pills, along with some general instructions. I’ve been taking them for the past few days, and I’m still waiting for my chocolate.