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Kino on Video presents
Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque (2005)

"My goal was to show shadows of the living coexisting with shadows of the dead, for that's the essence of film. It supercedes time and space. "
- Henri Langlois

Review By: Jeff Wilson   
Published: August 16, 2006

Stars: Henri Langlois
Other Stars: Claude Berri, Claude Chabrol, Lotte Eisner, Philippe Garrel, Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, Mary Meerson, Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut, Jack Valenti
Director: Jacques Richard

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for nothing objectionable
Run Time: 02h:09m:11s
Release Date: August 15, 2006
UPC: 738329047528
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Though it will probably only play to the informed, the French documentary Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque (Le Fantome d'Henri Langlois, which translates as The Ghost of Henri Langlois, a rather different title) paints an interesting portrait of a man the cinema owes much to. Langlois, who took on the responsiblity of founding and then building up the Cinematheque Francaise over several decades, both pioneered film preservation and exposed a generation of French filmmakers to the greats of the art form. The documentary, presented in a shortened 129-minute cut (original running time was 210 minutes), assumes some knowledge of the events described, but remains worth viewing for those with an interest in the history of film.

The film breaks down into sections, beginning with Langlois's formation of the Cinematheque, and his way of running it during its early days. Founded in 1936, the Cinematheque initially was run as a repertory house, until a benefactor provided funds to allow Langlois to start purchasing prints for a permanent collection. The onset of World War II forced Langlois work hard to preserve films that the Nazis wanted destroyed, although as Langlois admits, film lovers with the Nazi machine did their part to keep precious materials from being destroyed. Langlois's dealings with the Germans even allowed him to acquire the negative to The Blue Angel. Following the war, Langlois continued collecting and screening films for appreciative audiences, the growth of which forced a move to a larger location.

The following sections look at Langlois's relationship with Mary Meerson, although the film never makes clear what their relationship was, be it wife, companion, caretaker, or what have you. Some of the Cinematheque devtoees who comment throughout the film (an array of directors, scholars and other film types) gossip briefly about the pair, but I found this part of the film to be generally uninformative, beyond showing Meerson as a firm support to Langlois in his running of the Cinematheque. The longer version apparently briefly touches on the assumption that Langlois was gay, but that is left out here.

From there, it's not too long before we arrive at what was the major event of Langlois's life at the Cinematheque, his February 1968 ouster by French culture minister Andre Malraux. Accused of mismanagement, Malraux fired Langlois, an act that led Langlois's supporters, of whom there were many, to come out in mass protest against the move, with some demonstrations resulting in violent clashes between protesters and police. Given the overwhelming apathy that grips most of America, such behavior may strike younger viewers as stunning, given the stakes, but the protesters won the day, with Langlois reinstated. Shortly thereafter, France would see even more upheaval with the May 1968 riots, but that's another story.

From there, the film covers Langlois's honors late in life, which included an honorary Oscar for his work with the Cinematheque, and his presentation of the French Legion of Honor award to Alfred Hitchcock, who looks catatonic throughout a presentation which reaches absurdity as the gathered press demand that Langlois present the award multiple times to get them the best coverage. Langlois's death in 1977 came after the establishment of a cinema museum stocked with many of the treasures he had gathered (Langlois also collected documents, costumes, props, and anything else of interest). After his death, we are told that the museum slowly fell into disrepair, and a fire in the late 1990s gives rise to some vague accusations of some kind of conspiracy against it that are left undeveloped. Whoever cut the film down would have been better off leaving this material out and getting more of Langlois in.

Overall, the documentary is uneven, not surprising given it's missing 90-plus minutes of footage, but if you love film, you'll want to see this portrait of a man who truly loved film, virtually to the exclusion of all else, it seems. Langlois urged the appreciation of film on a truly intimate and meaningful level; there is something to be appreciated in that, in this age of immediate gratification and shallowness.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The film is comprised of footage from a variety of sources, ranging from beat up television and film prints to newly shot interview material. As such, the film looks okay, though there seems to be some occasional smeariness during fast motions, but since there are few such moments given the prevelance of talking heads, this isn't a huge issue. The burned-in subtitles are white, and are clean and easy to read.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Frenchno

Audio Transfer Review: A basic 2.0 mix here, which allows the speakers to come across clearly. Current music was used in the film, which is rather jarring, but it sounds fine.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Stills gallery
Extras Review: We have a couple brief featurettes on hand; the first is Langlois Monumental (00h:10m:25s), which details the dedication of a memorial to Langlois in 1991. Samuel Fuller is among the well wishers on hand. La Musée de Cinema Henri Langlois (1997, 00h:03m:27s) discusses the hope that Langlois's musuem of the cinema would find its ultimate flowering after its forced shutdown in May 1997. The narration is read by Alain Delon. Lastly, a stills gallery collects several shots of Langlois.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

For film lovers, this will provide a generally bracing shot of what true devotion to film is all about. Kino's DVD presents a shortened version of this French documentary, but there is still plenty here to enjoy. The presentation is solid enough, given the disparate types of footage included.


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