“Citizen Langlois,” Edgardo Cozarinsky’s reverent and impressionistic assemblage of archival and docu footage concerning Henri Langlois, the impassioned French man who crusaded all his life to rescue and screen neglected films, features some memorable and amusing moments in which Langlois’ iconoclastic charisma comes through loud and clear, but, overall, docu assumes too much and elucidates too little. The definitive film portrait of Langlois, acknowledging his shortcomings as well as his genius, remains to be made.
Co-produced by the Cinematheque Francaise — the world-class film archive and museum that Langlois created and led for more than 40 years — docu pays almost completely uncritical homage to Langlois and presupposes a fair amount of background on the part of viewers. Film will find an automatic niche internationally, in theaters and on TV nets where buff items are welcome.
Langlois (1914-77), the single-minded, often exasperating man who co-founded the Cinematheque Francaise (with Georges Franju) in 1936 at age 21 and built its collection of films and cinemabilia from scratch, is evoked in interviews and testimonials strung together with narration from thesp Niels Arestrup, whose stern, borderline unpleasant delivery is a strange choice for recounting the life of a flamboyant, enterprising and ingenious character.
Docu’s central, twice-repeated question –“Why would a young man at age 20 turn to the past?”– is pretty much a non-issue, and certainly not a mystery on the order of “Rosebud” in “Citizen Kane,” as pic ponderously implies with a lengthy excerpt from Welles’ masterwork. Langlois loved the silent cinema, and nobody else was lifting a finger to save it. That his all-encompassing devotion to and encyclopedic knowledge of the medium turned into a career is no more peculiar than an animal-loving youngster’s growing up to be a veterinarian.
The analogy is also specious in that Charles Foster Kane took no abiding interest in his endless treasures, whereas Langlois genuinely loved his holdings and sought to share them. Also, docu gives somewhat short shrift to the fact that Langlois took an active interest in current filmmakers and was not bound to the past in a restrictive or exclusive way.
Flawed “Kane” conceit aside, pic provides the welcome opportunity to see filmed evidence of the inimitable Langlois in action, striding gracefully through Cinematheque headquarters and Paris streets despite his blimp-like bulk, cajoling interviewers with his always lively and astute insights and refusing to suffer fools gladly.
Docu starts with film frames ominously burning in the projector gate, then shows the delightful Langlois-in-a-nutshell snippet in which he answers the phone and, never letting on that he’s anything more than a switchboard operator, blithely advises the caller that the best way to reach “Mr. Langlois” would be to ring back the next day. Docu then leaps headlong into the events of February 1968, when Langlois was booted out of the Cinematheque, creating a furor that only hinted at the nationwide revolution of the following May. However, straight exposition not being Cozarinsky’s style, pic glosses over when and how Langlois was reinstated, and information as basic as when Langlois died is never mentioned.
To its credit, film does highlight the essential role three devoted women played in the life of the Cinematheque: tireless German film historian Lotte Eisner, filmmaker Jean Epstein’s hardworking sister Marie Epstein (both Jews who were helped by Henri during the war) and Henri’s expansive and notoriously camera-shy companion, Mary Meerson.
Mostly brief vintage interviews with Truffaut, Rohmer, Franju and others confirm that the Cinematheque was their training ground, and footage of acolytes milling about conveys a feeling for the place when Langlois ruled the roost. (Helmer shot very little original material.) Some major figures are only sketchily identified, and voices overlap in a way that is difficult for non-initiates to place — a problem that onscreen supers could greatly remedy.
It is ironic that docu qualifies the Museum of Cinema as Langlois’ “most faithful self-portrait” since the French government and the current administration of the Cinematheque have announced plans to crate up Langlois’ museum and remake it in their own, more modern, image in the Palais de Tokyo down the block from its present location at the Palais de Chaillot.
As a reference document, docu is diminished by a scattershot, even niggardly, approach to acknowledging its sources in the closing credits.