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Documentary, Film history, French Cinema

BIFF 11: Le fantôme d’Henri Langlois (France 2004)

Henri Langlois

Bradford International Film Festival programmer Tom Vincent introduced this documentary by saying that he’d been inspired by seeing the film and that he believed that Henri Langlois, legendary founder of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in the 1930s, was an important figure in establishing the importance of exhibition practice in film culture. I agree totally and all film programmers should be required to read about Langlois or watch this documentary.

If this is history that you don’t know, the Wikipedia page on Henri Langlois gives the basic background. Anyone with pretensions to be a cinéphile will know that it was the screenings of films (three or four screenings a night) in the tiny auditorium of the cinémathèque that allowed the young Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer et al to acquire the background that would enable them to become first critics and later the directors of la nouvelle vague in the 1950s. But there was much more to Langlois than only being an exhibitor – even though that was crucial. He more or less invented the notion of a properly curated film archive, rescuing films from the trashcan, keeping them out of the hands of Nazi occupiers (and potential censors) in 1940 and eventually opening a novel kind of film museum.

The documentary, written and directed by Jacques Richard (who seems to have made two earlier films about Langlois and the film museum) is primarily a procession of talking heads with occasional film clips and newsreel reports. Interviews with Langlois himself (clearly at different times, given his changing hair length and increasing bulk) are intercut with statements by a host of French directors, critics and archivists. One of the pleasures of the film is to spot all the names that you might just have read about in the French Cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, seeing which ones are still alive and which exist only in archive footage etc. The most engaging personality turns out to be Chabrol. The old rogue is interviewed outside a café but it’s worth straining to hear above the traffic noise as he gives his memories.

There are roughly three parts in the documentary (which runs for 128 mins). The first covers the 1930s through to the 1950s as Langlois developed the cinémathèque, the second focuses on the increasing problems associated with the clash between Langlois the maverick curator and the bureaucracies of state funding, culminating in the famous 1968 protests when Langlois was removed by the Culture Minister. The final section covers the creation of the film museum and the last days when Langlois finally got the recognition he deserved, including an honorary Oscar (which he seems to have appreciated far more than some of us cynics might have expected). This section includes hilarious archive footage in which Langlois attempts to pin a medal on Alfred Hitchcock – several times to accommodate the photographers. This reminds me of the only Langlois anecdote that I remember from the time. Hitchcock’s three films made for Paramount between 1954 and 1958 (Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry and Vertigo) for some reason could not be shown in the UK as the rights had expired and not been renewed. So for the whole of the 1970s (when Hitchcock was a major focus for film studies) there was no legal way to see the films. During this period the NFT in London programmed a Hitchcock retrospective without the trio – only for Langlois to turn up with a copy of Vertigo in a large hold-all. The NFT refused to show the film. I’ve no idea if this is true. Can anyone corroborate? Anyway, it’s a good story and it fits with the Langlois in this documentary.

The film is available on a Region 1 DVD from Kino and there is rumoured to be a longer version of the film somewhere.

Discussion

One thought on “BIFF 11: Le fantôme d’Henri Langlois (France 2004)

  1. I’m really pleased that you enjoyed it Roy. As I mentioned in the intro, and as suggested by the existence of a 4-hour version, there’s a lot more to learn about Langlois, including his frantic efforts in New York in the 1970s to establish a film centre there.

    I was also really interested to learn about the parallel histories of the Cinémathèque Française and the British Film Institute in the 1950s, their relative archival and exhibition policies; almost a secret history of national film cultures.

    This film was my second encounter with him, after reading this terrific biography: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Passion-Films-Langlois-Cinematheque-Francaise/dp/080186206X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1269688604&sr=8-1

    Posted by TV | March 27, 2010, 12:31

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