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Organized mostly chronologically, the film presents the 40-year career of Henri Langlois (1914-1977), film's first archivist, and the creator of the Cinémathèque Française and Musée du Cinéma. Talking heads, film clips and stills, and archival interviews with Langlois trace his life from 1935, when he starts the Circle of Cinema film club. He begins to buy films, saving many from destruction. During World War II, he finds places to hide them. By mid-1944, the Cinémathèque has 50,000 films. He runs afoul of bureaucrats, but the New Wave comes to his defense. The museum opens in 1972. The film celebrates his philosophy and beliefs, personality and dedication, and his vision. Written by
[to Alfred Hitchcock]
I'm thrilled about your Legion of Honor in the name of cinema and in the name of people who truly love France, adore England and truly love the USA, because you're from all three and that makes one. Now, with your permission, I'll quickly read this: In the name of the President of France - that's funny - by virtue of the powers vested in me - that's odd - I make you a Knight in the Legion of Honor.
[Pins the Medal of Honor on Hitchcock and kisses him on both cheeks]
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if only I could somehow bring Henri Langlois back from the dead...
...Because, as this documentary makes quite clear, Langlois was one of the greatest film geeks that ever lived, and it would be heaven-sent (if there is a heaven) to have him back at the Cinematheque again. And I say the word 'geek' with the utmost enthusiasm and admiration and respect et all. Langlois was not just a film buff's film buff (no New-Wave without him, hence probably most of today's cinema), but also open to anyone who might be interested in checking out his museum of cinematic wonders, where he collected objects and put them in the spaces and hallways with brilliant ease. He was probably the greatest programmer of any privately functioning theater ever. After amassing 50,000+ film prints over a span of a couple of decades, the Cinematheque in Paris became THE place where fans of film (and auteurs to be exact) could come and see entire careers of a director, or, more importantly, even bring their own film or a 'heisted' print to be included in the archives. It was no surprise then when an incredible uprising occurred over Langois being ousted in 1968, and when finally re-instated things could never totally be the same again.
Rarely have I seen someone documented who in a way is as important to the history of film as any other important filmmaker from any part of the country. As Jean-Luc Godard says at the start of the film, "Langlois was like a film producer who produced a way of seeing films." He was in large part preservationist who held onto original negatives (sometimes in nitrate form) and re-cut the films when only scraps and fragments remained of masterpieces, leading to people being able to see many films that would otherwise be lost. He was also in large part as enthusiastic as a little kid with a new toy when it came to finding an old silent film from Murnau or Eisenstein or something from Jean Vigo and sharing his love with other people who would either go on to be filmmakers themselves (the 'New-Wave', to be sure, but also film historians), or the casual amirer of films. And another part was the museum he had built up like any other art museum, with the finest pieces of wares and artifacts (i.e. the original 'mother' head from Psycho), to invite film fans and even casual viewers to gorge on more than just memorabilia.
It then becomes bittersweet - at first sweet- to see his story unfold via many interviews with associates, friends, filmmakers (Chabrol, Roche, etc), and historians who knew how Langlois started small with passionate screenings in the 30s, then into a sort of resistance fighter for his films from the Nazis in the early 40s, and then finally expanding in the late 40s into the 50s to become the premier place for films that, unlike any other archive, were all inclusive for the audience. So, in a sense, we learn he was a filmmaker, but really as one who could make the films important and vital and presentable. He wasn't alone, as we learn throughout this entertaining look at his ups and downs of his career- we also see a bit into his personal life with his most close associate and love Mary, who was like a mother with tough love attached at times. Then, eventually, we see how he also had enemies, maybe as many as he had friends and followers, and somehow (he wasn't "executive" material of course, and because he was private and with next to no funding from the French government, near dirt-poor while scrapping everything for his non-profit organization) he got fired. It's amazing- on top of the previous footage of various film clips from the films he showed &/or directors inspired (Vigo, Godard, Meilies, Von Strernberg, Murnau, etc)- to see the revolution-style protests of his being fired by film directors and fans. It's actually, in all manner of speaking, inspiring.
But then the bitter part comes in seeing what Langlois was reduced to after being reinstated- taking professor jobs on cinema across America and Canada and France- just to get a little more money for the fledgling Cinematheque. All of this ends up being told through Langlois and the other interviews as something that is saddening, but there's still always hope and more films to be shown all the while. While towards the end director Jacques Richard has the film lagging in the section about Langlois and his work on the museum, overall he really delves deep into this wonderful man's life, and provides a great way in documentary form to introduce future film-buffs into what it means to really put yourself completely on the line for film. On top of this, what it means to be independent of the system and get your stuff shown through someone who wont brush someone off with a desire to display their art (the film the Dreamers put a good memory on the Cinematheque right at the start, though only briefly). Someone like Langlois, who was scruffy and boisterous and extremely intelligent and acute on anything film and preservation-related, also was great in how he wanted to look to the future just as much as looking to the past. Like any other print at the Cinematheque, this documentary deserves to be preserved too.
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