Wednesday, February 11, 2004

One thing is for sure about “The Dreamers,” director Bernardo Bertolucci’s steamy new drama set against the backdrop of the May 1968 student riots in Paris. In depicting the firing of the director of the Cinematheque Francaise, Henri Langlois, as a catalyst of the uprising, the youthful memories of Mr. Bertolucci and screenwriter Gilbert Adair have acquired a distinctly romantic coloration with the passing decades.

First you need to know what the Cinematheque Francaise was like, a decade or more before the action of “The Dreamers.” To know that institution you have to know something about Mr. Langlois, the man responsible for its creation and its tremendous impact on a whole generation of filmmakers.

The Cinematheque houses the world’s largest collection of films, movie documents and objects (from original Sergei Eisenstein drawings to jewelry worn by obscure silent film divas), and three times nightly, seven days a week, screenings are held of the widest variety of films from all over the world.

Back in the ‘50s, the Cinematheque held its screenings in a succession of cramped Parisian screening rooms before finally moving in 1963 to its present spacious quarters at the rear of the Palais de Chaillot at Place Trocadero in the French capital’s fashionable 16th arrondissement. Thanks to a substantial grant from Andre Malraux, a one-time filmmaker himself and a minister under President Charles de Gaulle, the new quarters boasted one of the most modern and best screening rooms in Europe.

The Cinematheque grew out of the single-minded passion of Mr. Langlois, who, as a slim, highly original youth in the ‘30s, set himself on a one-man crusade to collect films. At first, his goal was simply to preserve old films from destruction and oblivion. He dug out rare silent films by the likes of Melies, Lumiere and other film pioneers from attics, old movie houses, the Flea Market, and occasionally ash cans. His passion quickly spread to copies of contemporary films, which were often destroyed by distributors after a certain time limit.

Mr. Langlois was soon joined in his mission of salvation by the late, great filmmaker Georges Franju (his “Les Yeux Sans Visage” (Eyes Without a Face ) recently played in New York). The two young men began one of the first cine-clubs in Paris, often showing their films in rented lecture halls and sometimes in the Langlois family apartment. (Langlois’ mother was an American, which, he liked to claim, gave him an affinity “by blood” for the American cinema.) Film cans, old scenarios and costumes from movies littered their homes.

By the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Langlois had amassed a collection said to be one of the largest and best in the world. To the end of his days, he always cagily refused to admit to the exact extent of his film wealth, and during his lifetime there was never a catalog of the Cinematheque’s films.

He found his beloved collection threatened with extinction under the German occupation. The authorities decreed that all films made prior to 1937 were to be destroyed, as well as all more recent films whose point of view was not compatible with the new regime. Messrs. Langlois and Franju and a few devoted friends managed to smuggle, with great difficulty, literally tons of documents and thousands of cans of film out of occupied Paris to the safety of a fusty old chateau in unoccupied France.

The liberation saw the triumphant return of the collection to Paris, where it was taken under the wing of the French government, given a screening room, a staff and a small subsidy under which it could function. As its director, Mr. Langlois, no longer slim but still highly original, organized cycles, where, by attending three times a night, every night for two or three months, film devotees (among whom were myself and my late husband, Richard) could see nearly the entire history of the German, Russian, English, Japanese, Indian, and American motion-picture industries — from the first silent films to their contemporaneous output.

Mr. Langlois accomplished such feats as being the first to show the entire film work of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa (who flew in from Japan for the “homage”the Cinematheque was paying him). Among those who crowded into the tiny screening room on Avenue de Messine in the immediate postwar years, often sitting on the floor, noses virtually touching the screen, were Robert Bresson, Rene Clement, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jacques Becker — the master French filmmakers of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Admittedly, there were certain drawbacks to acquiring this unique film education. To see a Bergman or Kurosawa cycle you had to be prepared to devote six hours a night for five or six nights, be willing to pass up dinner for sandwiches during this time and not mind watching these films in their native language, usually without benefit of translation or subtitles. But hundreds of people did just that, and on more than one occasion police had to be called out to control the crowds. The French do take cinema very seriously.

The entire new wave school of directors — Alain Resnais, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Roger Vadim, Jacques Donial-Valcroze, Pierre Kast — were virtually teethed on the classics of the Avenue de Messine. I can still vividly recall Mr. Truffaut and Mr. Godard, as we were often jockeying for the same front-row seats. The two were the most pasty-faced of the evening crowd, usually having spent their afternoons in movie houses on the Champs Elysees catching up on the latest films on release. We suspected they never saw the sun.

As for the notion, embraced by Mr. Bertolucci, of Mr. Langlois being at the root of the May 1968 would-be revolution — it’s silly and sentimental. True, Mr. Langlois proudly laid claim to having been responsible for the student uprising, but with all due respect to his memory, Mr. Langlois tended to live largely in the realm of the imaginary.

Notwithstanding his devotion to films, Mr. Langlois was, to the increasing distress of government bureaucrats, serenely, magnificently above matters of budget, organization, accounting or putting together a catalog of the institution’s collection. In short, he was a bureaucrat’s worst nightmare. He was sacked by Malraux for nothing more dramatic or ideologically threatening than chronic administrative negligence.

The romanticization of Mr. Langlois is not Mr. Bertolucci’s only flight of revolutionary fantasy. I was on the Boulevard Saint Michel when the students were kicking up, but I certainly saw no red silken banners waving in homage to Chairman Mao, as depicted in “The Dreamers.” I will never forget the reaction of Polish director Roman Polanski, then residing in Paris, to the May student uprising. “They think they want revolution, but they have no idea of what revolution brings,” he said ominously to Richard and me after one riotous meeting.

Whatever the origins of the standoff, in the end Mr. Langlois beat the bureaucrats hands down, as virtually every filmmaker and producer and studio head from around the world telegraphed the French government to say that if Mr. Langlois were not immediately reinstated they would withdraw all their films from the Cinematheque. The bureaucrats admitted defeat, as Mr. Langlois said they would.

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