Henri Langlois has been described in many ways — as a “disorderly genius,” the Man of Cinema, a “glutton,” one who “belongs to that disappearing race of free men” and much more — and French documaker Jacques Richard has made a film big and grand enough to accommodate his outsized subject in “Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinematheque.” A labor of love made over the course of seven years that crucially matches the energy and passion Langlois himself embodied, this deep-dish account of the life and times of the longtime head of the Cinematheque Francaise will enthrall buffs in limited showings on the fest and specialized venue circuit, but will find its greatest audience on Euro TV and DVD, with the latter due out in Gaul in December.
Universally revered as the single-handed savior of more films than anyone else, canonized by some as the visionary victim of the “vile administrative pettiness” of the unsupportive state and admonished by others for slovenly organizational practices, Langlois receives a clear-headed, many-faceted portrait by Richard, who supplements the often incisive and rewardingly analytical insights of nearly 80 friends, associates and filmmakers with loads evocative footage of the formidable man himself.
Result is that we not only get testimony from Georges Melies’ granddaughter as to how Langlois collected money to pay for the 1938 funeral of the destitute pioneer of fantasy cinema, and from Simone Signoret as to how her friend spirited contraband prints around Paris in a baby carriage during the Nazi occupation, but we also behold Pierre Cardin commenting on the difficulty of making suits for the rotund Langlois, and Claude Chabrol reflecting on the private lives of Langlois and his equally obese companion, Mary Meerson, by admitting, “I tried to imagine them in frenzied copulation, but … .”
In other words, Richard has filled his 3½ hours with enormously diverse material that meshes to create a picture of the man that is satisfying on both the intellectual and human planes. For anyone with a pre-existing interest the subject, absorption in the film is so total that the time passes in a flash; for younger viewers who find their way to it, pic represents the ultimate illustration of what devotion to the cinema means, and incidentally underlines the individual obsession that initiated the now-widespread effort to preserve the history of the cinema.
Divided into two roughly equal parts, “Phantom” begins by tracing Langlois’ youth and his mania for silent films — one of his early triumphs was rescuing “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” — and by establishing his guiding principles. From the start at the Cinematheque, which was founded by Langlois and Georges Franju in 1936, the policy was to try to save everything. “Never assume you know what’s of value,” argued Langlois, insisting that even a mediocre film can reveal much about the time and culture in which it was made.
Narrative is fascinating during the Nazi years, as Langlois developed numerous strategies to outwit an enemy that could have seized him and his collection (which had already reached 50,000 prints by 1944) on a whim: deliberately mislabeling films and misleading the authorities about others, all the while having well-hidden pics high on the Germans’ hit list, such as those by Chaplin and the Soviets. One fringe benefit of this period was Langlois’ getting hold of the original negative of “The Blue Angel.”
But it was the next decade that saw the institution’s flowering. By the early ’50s, the Cinematheque had become the gathering point of the young generation of cinephiles who were, first, to change film criticism and appreciation, then make a major mark on filmmaking itself. In the process, Langlois came to be considered the godfather of the nouvelle vague. Richard has dug up old clips of Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer lauding their mentor, and makes extensive use of a fresh interview with a vigorous Chabrol to go deeper into the subject’s complexity.
During the Cinematheque’s glory years, Langlois created, per Chabrol, “the first multiplex” at the old Avenue Messine location, going so far as to project films in the stairwell. While finding time to devote to such esoterica as how many of the hardest-core buffs felt they had to sit in the front row, pic documents the inner workings of the organization in its “joyfully disorganized” prime, with proper attention focused on Meerson, a former great beauty who eventually matched Langlois in girth and slovenliness, engaged in ferocious yelling matches with him and exercised enormous influence at the Cinematheque. First half concludes, after 103 minutes, with ominous notations of the org’s lack of proper funding and resulting disorder.
Part two is dominated by a detailed account of the protests that sprang up in February 1968, when Langlois was dismissed as head of the Cinematheque by his friend and longtime supporter, minister of Culture Andre Malraux. With New Wave directors leading the charge, a groundswell of support for Langlois was generated among the intelligentsia inside and outside France, and a wealth of footage clearly illustrates how these street demonstrations (some of which became violent) served as a dress rehearsal for bigger events in May.
Richard commendably obtains viewpoints from across the board, from then-radical agitator Daniel Cohn-Bendit to aging government workers, the upshot being that meddling and conniving bureaucrats had been able to convince Malraux that Langlois was unable to properly manage the Cinematheque and that the state ought to exercise control. Pic doesn’t try to make light of Langlois’ administrative shortcomings, but puts them in proper perspective in relation to his gargantuan accomplishments.
Coverage of Langlois’ final decade gives the impression of a dizzyingly frenetic life. With his enshrinement already taking shape thanks to his reinstatement at the Cinematheque and a special Academy Award, Langlois moved aggressively ahead with his long-aborning cinema museum at the Palais Chaillot and an idea for a series of films on painters (curiously missing is any mention of a heavily touted plan to create an American adjunct of the Cinematheque under the 59th Street Bridge in New York City). Extended footage of Langlois bestowing the legion d’honneur on Alfred Hitchcock is particularly delightful.
All the while, however, Langlois remained chronically in need of funds; Montreal Film Festival topper Serge Losique explains how he got his friend a teaching gig that required him to fly to North America once a month and chides the French for not having offered him anything similar closer to home. Although it remains absorbing, pic skips about a good deal toward the end as the life itself moves well beyond the film’s dramatic climax.
Langlois died of a heart attack on Jan. 13, 1977, and it’s with his death that the film’s single biggest omission comes into focus. A young man in a photograph of the funeral is incidentally referred to as the deceased’s lover, which is the first and last indication that Langlois was gay. His orientation was generally known, or at least presumed, in film circles during his lifetime, and for Richard to assiduously avoid the subject for 3½ hours, then casually drop it in but not follow up seems downright bizarre, suggesting an incomprehensible skittishness, given the thoroughness of the film in every other respect.
Apart from this, and a soundtrack that includes harsh contempo pop music mistakenly intended to make Langlois seem modern rather than a dusty figure from the history books, Richard has done an exemplary job in bringing his subject alive and making his accomplishments relevant. Editor Fabrice Radenac merits kudos for helping organize the huge amount of material into a film that flows along at a merry clip.