The Pope of Cinema

'Henri Langlois' doesn't just preach to the converted

If cinephilia is a religion, then the Cinémathèque française is its Vatican and Henri Langlois was its most spectacularly eccentric pope. Incomparably disheveled and grotesquely overweight, Langlois took everything to the extreme during his nearly 40-year reign over filmdom's most sacred shrine. He amassed a 50,000-title archive (much of which he admits to having stolen) while perpetually operating on the brink of financial ruin, so lacking was his administrative aptitude. As made abundantly clear in Jacques Richard's engrossing documentary Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinémathèque, the man's penchant for anarchical excess was matched only by his tireless generosity--to young filmmakers, forgotten auteurs, and broke movie addicts in cine-crazy Paris.

As luck would have it, Richard's documentary opens on the heels of another opening--the inauguration of the new Cinémathèque française at 51 Quai de Bercy in Paris's 12th arrondissement. In late September, world-cinema dignitaries such as Martin Scorsese and Wong Kar-wai attended the unveiling of the Cinémathèque's new home, a towering gigaplex that houses four screening rooms, a museum, a library, and a restaurant. Designed by modernist American architect Frank Gehry, the building previously housed the American Cultural Center, but had lain empty for years before the French government purchased it, thus ending the Cinémathèque's 15-year search for a permanent base.

You can call him Al? Henri Langlois at work
Leisure Time Features
You can call him Al? Henri Langlois at work

But has the Cinémathèque really settled down? Phantom suggests that the Cinémathèque has always been a fugitive institution, constantly hunting for something different, newer, better. Founded by Langlois in 1936 (with the help of directors Georges Franju and Jean Mitry), the Cinémathèque began as a club that exclusively showed silent films, often in Langlois's own apartment. Subsequent incarnations included more spacious venues on the Avenue Messine, rue d'Ulm, and most recently the Palais de Chaillot. Something of a moveable feast, the Cinémathèque ultimately "resided inside Langlois," as one of the doc's interviewees puts it. "He carried it in his head and heart all the time."

And so did his many acolytes. The Cinémathèque's most famous moment came in February, 1968, in the notorious L'Affaire Langlois that pitted the French government (having forced Langlois from his post on charges of mismanagement) against protestors led by prominent New Wave personalities, who revered Langlois like a father. Phantom includes fascinating footage from those contentious weeks--an impassioned Jean-Pierre Léaud riling the crowds, a more conciliatory Claude Chabrol trying to calm them, a smug Jean-Luc Godard glimpsed after being clubbed by a police officer.

Those were the days. New digs aside, today's Cinémathèque is more likely to inspire shrugs of indifference than radicalized cries for solidarity. Ubiquitous DVDs, arty cable channels, and peer-to-peer software have smashed the Cinémathèque's communal audience into countless atomic units. Attendance is down sharply (filling less than 30 percent of capacity last year), which prompted Cahiers du cinéma in September to bluntly ask, "What purpose do cinémathèques serve today?" The question, when posed directly to the Cinémathèque's current director, Serge Toubiana, elicits a somewhat defensive response. "I don't consider DVDs and cable channels to be forms of competition," he says. "It's just another way of viewing films. At the Cinémathèque, our specialty is the big screen. But we also sell DVDs, publish books, and show movies in HD projection. Naturally when you watch a film on DVD, you want some sort of historical context, and that's what we provide. Our mission is to exhaust all the channels of cinema."

No longer the countercultural thorn it once was, the Cinémathèque "has had to make a kind of peace with the state," says Toubiana. "We're a private organization with members, but we're in a building owned by the government, and the government gives us an annual subsidy. So we have to find a position of trust and compromise because otherwise we couldn't do anything. But we've maintained our cultural independence in terms of exhibition and programming." Despite a 20 percent budget increase from last year, the Cinémathèque's greatest challenge remains film preservation and restoration--Langlois's twin obsessions. "The money to restore films comes directly from the state," says Toubiana, "and this budget is in the process of shrinking. We have to convince the CNC [state film board] to develop the budget for safeguarding movies. It's our biggest challenge today."

In one of Phantom's most memorable passages, friends tell how Langlois saved innumerable prints during World War II by transporting them in baby carriages (with the aid of actress Simone Signoret) right under the noses of Nazi soldiers. Langlois's compulsion to save everything, not just the classics, often led to mass confusion for his assistants (mislabeled canisters was a big problem), but he stuck to it, money or no money, government approval or not. The Cinémathèque may have resided in Langlois's head, but he broadcast it like a beacon. Now it resides in all of us and is a collective responsibility. However we choose to discharge that duty, we get, in the end, the Cinémathèque (and the movie culture) that we deserve.

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