Henri Langlois, Phantom of the Cinematheque

By Dee Dee Vega

Perhaps the most salient point of Jean Richard’s documentary Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque is that in the modern world of DVD decadence in which there is little that the cinephile doesn’t have access to, the pervasive accomplishment of Henri Langlois is difficult to understand. During the pre-war period through the 1970s, Langlois tirelessly rescued films that would have been lost forever by neglect or deliberate destruction by Nazis, studios or the directors themselves to amass what became the Cinematheque Francaise, a private institution devoted to the screening, study and preservation of films from. Although Langlois’ name is obscured in film history by the directors’ whose work he saved—such as the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Jean Vigo— this documentary does something to pay homage to the master cultural curator. As we watch Langlois lumbering through the halls of his institute with his hulking mass and hair that always seemed to look like a duck in an Exxon disaster, it becomes clear that we cannot grasp the magic of the early days of the Cinematheque.

While there are, unfortunately, some monsterous production choices (cheesy Dark Nights-ish music as we see footage of Langlois roaming the halls, psychedelic, negative images and trippy music during the “60s” section)—film fiends will find it all worth it to see the reverence in the eyes of the young Truffaut, the sparkling authority of Lotte Eisner or a bespectacled Godard being beaten by police in front of the Cinematheque offices. Perhaps the strongest moments in the film are during the protests speckled with French celebrities that occurred in front of the Cinematheque when Langlois was ousted from his position as director. The crowds of young filmmakers empowered by the cultural gift of Langlois’ influence took to the streets in the name of their art. This, to me, is most moving of all. Yet, nothing quite describes the massive importance of Langois quite like the flickering images and antique grace of the films he rescued from oblivion. This was the greatest magic trick that phantom of the Cinematheque ever worked.