Le Fantôme d’Henri Langlois

This is Louis Menand writing in The New Yorker Oct. 20th, 2003, “high-end French film culture was a private club. You had to pass a test of connoisseurship to belong. Every step toward making it public and democratic was secretly feared, and therefore loudly attacked as a bureaucratic and naturalistic encroachment on the sort of free-thinking cosmopolitanism the protesters imagined themselves to represent.”

No no, let us let Menand let the cat out of the bag a wee bit more. “And what was at stake? Nothing, really, since the age of the repertory cinema and the art house was over, anyway. The Cinémathèque was saved, but it was already a museum.” Hence, Le Fantôme d’Henri Langlois is obliviously translated as Henri Langlois: the Phantom of the Cinematheque. Much effort is spent on hyping the subtitles, so that “objets” are “stuff”, but it doesn’t last.

The technique is the filmed interview, after the manner of Marcel Ophuls and Woody Allen. Interpolations of film footage illustrate the points in question. The Blue Angel, Keaton, Les Vampires, Godard filming Bande à Part are briefly seen because Langlois rescued the first, met the second, had the star of the third working at the Cinémathèque, and inspired the fourth, for example. Jostling news footage shows Hitchcock receiving the Légion d’Honneur from Langlois and returning the compliment.

Langlois understands the cinema even more than this writer, and in the same proportion as this writer understands it more than the critics, who do not understand it at all. Consequently, Langlois stands as the embodiment of the art in a way that practitioners cannot, with their likes and dislikes. He rebukes Chabrol for dismissing a Minnelli. Silent newsreel footage records life, he observes, and not “a head of state or a horse.”

And here he is, after the equitably divided intermission, early in 1968 precisely between the two as the scandal unfolds of which he proposed never to speak until after his death, hence the original title. The purpose is not so much to vindicate Langlois as to evoke him, nevertheless two or three points are clarified with a few minutes’ expenditure out of three-and-a-half hours of fast-paced editing. Langlois was not disorderly, he saved films as and where he could, everywhere and at all times, with an impossible budget. He stood in no position for personal gain. His hygiene was no worse than Beethoven’s (this is not mentioned, but may be inferred from his tirelessness).

You think of Langlois as the anonymous founder of the Cinémathèque Française, or else you have vague theories about his personality, and you discover an artist who is the life of the institution.

Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer (“there’s three aces for you,” as the man said) open the program with a quick surmise as to his position and influence. Colleagues, poets, directors, cameramen, politicians, journalists, are briefly able to tell (and in some cases, at great length intermittently) what they know about the subject. Jack Valenti credits him with inventing film preservation.

Henri Langlois knows what that’s worth as a general thing, as he knows that “everyone and his brother-in-law gets a Légion d’Honneur,” and that the effort to deceive the public and stamp out cinema is “murder.” His museum did not burn down in 1997 as commonly supposed, but was destroyed by water damage.

If his spirit departed from the Cinémathèque, they say, Chabrol and Godard would burn it down themselves. The Musée du Cinéma once suffered the theft of a Marilyn Monroe costume, and what a pity, muses Langlois, they did not make a copy of the dress and exhibit that instead, education and preservation being the sole substance of his life.