French film archivist Henri Langlois won an honorary Academy Award in 1974, "for his massive contributions towards preserving [cinema's] historical past and his unswerving faith in its future," but according to the people interviewed in Jacques Richard's Henri Langlois: Phantom Of The Cinematheque, Langlois could've won an Oscar as a filmmaker. For three decades after World War II—the most important years of French cinema—Langlois made old movies new again at his screening room, where he explained the connections between Buster Keaton and Carl Theodor Dreyer to a rapt audience that included the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. He showed an assortment of different films every night, and often allowed years to go by before he repeated a screening. For the people who attended his Cinémathèque Française religiously, film history became a crazy puzzle, pieced together by a programming genius.
Langlois saved films from the Nazis, recovered and reconstructed lost films, and held retrospectives of obscure Hollywood directors, sparking Cahiers Du Cinéma's "auteur" theory. One of the interviewees in Phantom Of The Cinematheque describes the Langlois era as a "layer cake," as new filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini emerged at the same time that old Hollywood masters were making films for a newly appreciative audience. Richard captures the excitement of the time, and also spends a sizeable chunk of the documentary on its sad end. Langlois invented a job that, by the end of the '60s, a lot of people felt they could do better. He mismanaged money, misfiled material, and was impolitic in his acquisition strategies, often borrowing prints he then refused to return or re-lend. The French government replaced Langlois in 1968, and though he was quickly reinstated (following a worldwide protest that temporarily shut down the Cannes Film Festival), Langlois lost a lot of the funding and staff he needed to complete his long-gestating cinema museum.
Though Phantom Of The Cinematheque is fascinating throughout, Richard squanders a chance to recreate one of those long Parisian nights where Langlois held court for his fellow movie buffs. His followers describe their own excitement, but only in fragments of Langlois interviews do we learn that he liked the Lumière brothers' actualities because they captured "the shadows of the dead," and that he preferred the trickery of Georges Méliès to dull "tradition of quality" French melodramas. In a broad sense, Phantom describes Langlois' advocacy of the artform, but rarely does it get as specific as his assertion that losing director Jean Vigo was like losing the color blue. That Langlois appears only intermittently, as one of Lumière's shadows.