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A Magnificent Obsession: Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française

A Magnificent Obsession: Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française

Event Details

Date & Time:

Fri September 26, 2014 - Fri December 5, 2014


The Block Museum of Art
40 Arts Circle Drive
Evanston, IL 60208


Open to the public


2014 marks the centennial of Henri Langlois, one of the most important figures in the history of cinema. Langlois was a co-founder, director and curator of the Cinémathèque Française, one of the world’s most important and celebrated film archives. Born in the ancient port city of Smyrna (now İzmir, Turkey) to French parents in 1914, he fled with his family to Paris in the early 1920s during the Greco-Turkish war. In Paris he fell under the spell of cinema, attending and later hosting screenings in his family’s apartment, and even storing cans of film in the bathtub. In the 1930s Langlois started a ciné-club with his friend, future director and fellow cinéphile Georges Franju, eventually co-founding the Cinémathèque Française in 1936, which was dedicated to collecting, preserving, and screening films. Throughout Langlois’ 40-year career, he was responsible for saving countless films, whether from destruction by the Nazis or from decay due to indifference and neglect. Langlois was brilliant, charming, eccentric, obsessive, and at times difficult, but always passionate about the art of cinema.  Attempts by the French government to oust him in 1968 led to a campaign by Françoise Truffaut and others to reinstate him and letters of support for Henri flooded in from the likes of Chaplin, Welles, Kubrick and many more. The “Langlois Affair” also resulted in heated demonstrations by the many loyal “children of the Cinémathèque” which sparked the larger youth-led protests in the streets of Paris in May of 1968. Langlois was reinstated and continued to run the Cinémathèque along with his partner, Mary Meerson until his death in 1977.

Henri Langlois inspired a generation of writers, scholars, curators and directors through his preservation work, his legendary screenings and cinema museum. Block Cinema will pay homage to Langlois through an eclectic selection of works showcasing many of the films and filmmakers he championed.

With support from the Institut Français, The Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York, and the Cultural Service at the Consulate General of France in Chicago.


A Girl in Every Port + A Trip to the Moon

Friday, September 26, 2014 7:00 PM

A Girl in Every Port
(Howard Hawks, 1928, US, 35mm, 76 min.)

Howard Hawks’ best-known silent film features two sailors (Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong) whose rivalrous friendship leads to rowdy and amorous adventures around the world. The iconic silent star Louise Brooks plays a carnival performer who catches the eye of both men. A Girl in Every Port combines the tough, male-centric themes found in many of the director’s later films with his adeptness at broad, physical comedy. Film curator Henri Langlois noted that the film was a double discovery for him, that of Hawks (whom he greatly admired) and Brooks. Of the latter Langlois said, “There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks.”

Archival 35mm print from the George Eastman House

Preceded by: 

A Trip to the Moon
(Georges Méliès, 1902, France, 35mm, 14 min.)

The original cinematic science fiction adventure remains as visually fresh and inventive as it was over a century ago. Director Georges Méliès was revered by Henri Langlois, who helped ensure that great works of “the magician of cinema” would not be forgotten. The film will be screened in a recently restored, tinted 35mm print.

This program will feature live musical accompaniment by David Drazin for both films.

Her Man

Friday, October 3, 2014 7:00 PM
(Tay Garnett, 1930, US, 35mm, 85 min.)

Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees) is a pretty pickpocket who works the Thalia, a rowdy bar in Havana frequented by hustlers, addicts and drunken sailors. Orphaned as a girl and exploited by her live-in boyfriend Johnnie (Ricardo Cortez), Frankie seems resigned to her abysmal lot until she meets earnest sailor Dan (30s heartthrob Phillips Holmes). Undeniably pre-Code in its frank depiction of vice, the film is also notable for its remarkably fluid camerawork and virtuosic tracking shots that were rare in early sound films. When Henri Langlois was invited in 1967 to New York to curate a series of American films at the Museum of Modern Art, Langlois, who relished bringing obscure films to the fore, chose Her Man for opening night.


Journey to Italy

Friday, October 10, 2014 7:00 PM
(Roberto Rossellini, 1954, Italy, DCP, 86 min.)

Misunderstood on its release, Journey to Italy is now regarded as one of Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini’s greatest masterpieces. It depicts the deteriorating marriage of a British couple (George Sanders and Rossellini’s real-life wife Ingrid Bergman) while on vacation near Naples and on the island of Capri. One of several remarkable films made by Rossellini and starring Bergman, Journey marks the director’s move away from his Neorealist roots towards a modernist approach that anticipates the 1960s and beyond (critics from Cahiers du Cinéma considered it the first “modern” film). A favorite of Langlois, Journey to Italy possesses an emotional complexity that was years ahead of its time.


The Shanghai Gesture

Friday, October 24, 2014 7:00 PM
(Josef von Sternberg, 1941, US, 35mm, 91 min.)

Disappointed by the conventional offerings at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1949, Langlois and author/filmmaker Jean Cocteau organized a film festival in nearby Biarritz that they named Festival du Film Maudit, meaning “cursed” or “damned” films. Included were then-infamous works like Kenneth Anger’s homoerotic Fireworks, and many others that were overlooked or dismissed by critics. One of these was The Shanghai Gesture which follows the exploits of Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson), the outrageously coiffed proprietress of the city’s most notorious gambling den (designed to resemble Dante’s circles of hell). Gene Tierney stars as “Poppy,” the troubled daughter of Gin Sling’s former lover, and Victor Mature plays Dr. Omar, a Fez-wearing hustler. Director von Sternberg’s unmistakable mise-en-scène adds to the debauched atmosphere.

Archival 35mm print from the George Eastman House

Special guest just added! Langlois biographer and author of Henri Langlois: First Citizen of Cinema, Glenn Myrent, will introduce the film.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Friday, October 31, 2014 7:00 PM
(Robert Wiene, 1920, Germany, DCP, 75 min.)

How are the mysterious Dr. Caligari and his sinister somnambulist Caesar able to predict the future? What do they have to do with the recent murders in Holstenwall? A monumental work whose influence on popular culture and the horror genre is difficult to overstate, Caligari, with its iconic Expressionist sets is a film that demands to be seen on the big screen. If you haven’t seen it (and even if you have), now is the time: in a new digital restoration, with live piano accompaniment, and on Halloween! 

Live musical accompaniment by David Drazin


DOUBLE FEATURE: Daïnah la Métisse + Remorques

Friday, November 7, 2014 7:00 PM

Daïnah la Métisse
(Jean Grémillon, 1932, France, 35mm, 51 min.)

This early sound film from Jean Grémillon offers an unflinching take on race and class. (Gaumont cut the film by a whopping 39 minutes when first released, and the footage has never been restored.) On an ocean liner where there's always music or a masked ball to occupy the wealthy passengers, the desirable Daïnah, mixed-race (métisse) wife of the ship's black magician, has a fateful encounter with a white engine mechanic. –Cleveland Cinematheque. The film journal Cahiers du Cinema called it “piercing and magnetic.”

Followed by: 

(Jean Grémillon, 1941, France, 35mm, 91 min.)

Long one of the most unheralded of the classic French filmmakers, Jean Grémillon’s reputation has continued to climb over the past decade or two. His career spanned 35 years, but he is best known for a quintet of late 1930s and early 1940s films, including this one. Iconic French actor Jean Gabin stars as a tugboat captain who is torn between his ailing wife (Madeleine Renaud) and the captivating woman he rescues one night (Michèle Morgan). As with his other wartime films, Grémillon combines romanticism with a darker, fatalistic tone that mirrors the mood of a country under occupation.



Langlois + All the Boys are Called Patrick + Citizen Langlois

Thursday, November 13, 2014 7:00 PM


(Roberto Guerra, Eila Hershon, 1970, US, DCP, 52 min.)

This 52-minute documentary, made in 1970, offers a whimsical, anecdotal portrait, interspersing interviews with Mr. Langlois’ associates and admirers (Lilian Gish, Simone Signoret, Catherine Deneuve, Kenneth Anger, and Viva, among others) with footage of him as he walks around Paris, holding forth on anything from a house in which Jean Renoir once lived to the black and white swans he spies in a park–Langlois found cinematic overtones in virtually everything.–Excerpted from the The New York Times.

Restored in 2014 by the Cinémathèque Française and Kathy Brew

Special Advance Screening courtesy of East Village Entertainment

Followed by: 

All the Boys are Called Patrick
(Jean-Luc Godard, 1959, France, video, 21 min.)

Parisian university students Charlotte and Véronique are pursued by a pick-up artist in this early collaboration between Jean-Luc Godard (who directed) and Eric Rohmer (who wrote the script). Patrick is a charming gem, made right before Godard’s breakout feature film, Breathless (À bout de souffle). Godard and Rohmer, along with Truffaut, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, and many other future critics and directors of the French New Wave were inspired by the countless films screened by Langlois at the Cinémathèque, which functioned as their de facto film school.

Followed by:

Added Film!

Citizen Langlois
(Edgardo Cozarinsky, 1995, France, 35mm, 68 min.)

Edgardo Cozarinsky's 68-minute documentary about Henri Langlois, the idiosyncratic cofounder of the French Cinematheque and spiritual father of the French New Wave, was awarded the 1995 Forum prize at the Berlin gathering of the International Federation of Film Critics; the jury (of which I was a member) cited it as "a brilliant essay revealing a multifaceted grasp of a major pioneer for whom cinema was the ultimate nationality." Langlois' passion for film preservation and multifaceted hatred for state bureaucracies were the traits of a complex individual, and Cozarinsky's portrait is far from exhaustive; in keeping with a certain French etiquette, there's nary a word about Langlois' homosexuality, and aspects of his paranoia are skimped. But the man is there and recognizable, and so is his divine madness, as reflected in the words of his companion Mary Meerson--that Josef von Sternberg's lost The Case of Lena Smith "will reappear one day when mankind deserves it."

–Jonathan Rosenbaum (The Chicago Reader)


Selected Short Films of Germaine Dulac

Friday, November 14, 2014 7:00 PM

Best known for what is considered the first Surrealist film, The Seashell and the Clergyman (1927), Germaine Dulac made close to thirty fiction films, as well as documentaries and newsreels. A feminist and avant-garde pioneer (who contributed to the creation of the Cinémathèque française), Madame Dulac’s lyrical approach to cinema involved music, movement, rhythm and “the material of life itself.” 

Films screening include:

La fête espagnole (1919, 35mm, approx. 8 min.)
La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) (1927, 16mm, approx. 40 min.)
Thèmes et variations (1929, 16mm, approx. 9 min)
Étude cinégraphique sur une arabesque (1929, 16mm, approx. 7 min.)
Celles qui s'en font (1930, 35mm, approx. 6 min.)
Autrefois…aujourd’hui (1930, 35mm, approx. 7 min.)
Total program length = approx. 100 MINUTES
35mm prints courtesy of CNC, Cinémathèque Française and Light Cone

This screening will be introduced by Tami Williams, author of the new book, Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations.

Live musical accompaniment by Matti Bye


The Wind

Saturday, November 15, 2014 6:00 PM
(Victor Sjöström, 1928, US, 35mm, 95 min.)

Letty Mason (Lilian Gish) moves from Virginia to live with her male cousin in the harsh windswept Texas plains. When jealousy consumes her cousin’s wife, Letty is forced out of the house and into a loveless marriage while dealing with the bleak landscape and its brutal blasts of wind. The final silent film of its star, Lilian Gish, and director, Swedish auteur Victor Sjöström, The Wind was panned by many American film critics but celebrated in Europe, thanks in part to its breathtaking cinematography filmed in the Mojave Desert.

This screening will feature live piano accompaniment by Stockholm-based musician Matti Bye, and foley/sound effects performed by members of Toronto-based Footsteps!

Archival 35mm print from the George Eastman House

Please note the early start time of 6pm


Unter den Brücken (Under the Bridges)

Thursday, November 20, 2014 7:00 PM
(Helmut Käutner, 1945, Germany, 16mm, 95 min.)

Another favorite of Langlois, Unter den Brücken tells the story of two lonely bargemen who vie for the affection of a troubled young woman. Remarkably, the film was shot in Berlin in 1944 during the final days of Germany’s defeat, though the war is conspicuously absent from the narrative. In fact, the story was inspired by the Poetic Realism of French director Jean Vigo’s 1934 film, L’Atalante (screening at the Block in December). In an interview after the war, director Helmut Käutner commented on the attitudes of some German filmmakers, himself included, and their refusal “to allow any of the horror which surrounded us to seep into our work.” 

With support from the Goethe-Institut.

This screening will be introduced by Anna Parkinson, Assistant Professor in the Department of German. 


Grand Illusion + Hôtel des Invalides

Friday, November 21, 2014 7:00 PM

Grand Illusion(Jean Renoir, 1937, France, 35mm, 114 min.)

Along with Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, Grand Illusion is undoubtedly among the French auteur’s greatest films. Set during WWI, it stars Jean Gabin as working class Lieutenant Maréchal who attempts to escape from a German POW camp, and Erich von Stroheim as Captain von Rauffenstein, the camp’s commandant and out of touch aristocrat. The film is an unforgettable commentary on class and the meaninglessness of war (made on the eve of WWII and banned by the Nazis) and the inevitable end of an era.

Preceded by: 

Hôtel des Invalides(Georges Franju, 1952, France, 35mm, 22 min.)

This short documentary made by Georges Franju (Cinémathèque Française co-founder and director of Eyes Without a Face) is a haunting meditation on past wars, via artifacts from François I's armor to Napoleon's tomb and beyond.

L'Atalante + Le Tempestaire

Friday, December 5, 2014 7:00 PM

(Jean Vigo, 1934, France, 35mm, 89 min.)

L’Atalante is one of the most acclaimed films of world cinema and was director Jean Vigo’s final film (and only feature) before his premature death at age 29. It’s a simple story of a young woman from the country who moves to the river barge piloted by her new husband, and a moment of discord that threatens their happiness. Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté are one of the great romantic couples in cinema, based on this one film alone, though co-star Michel Simon nearly steals the film as the barge’s eccentric first mate. An incandescent, magical film that critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called “one of the supreme masterpieces of French cinema.”

Preceded by: 

Le Tempestaire
(Jean Epstein, 1947, France, DCP, 22 min.)

With a frightful storm looming overhead, a young woman worries about her seafaring fiancé and seeks out the fabled old fishermen who are rumored to possess magical powers over the weather. Set in director Jean Epstein’s beloved Breton region, Le Tempestaire, at a mere 22 minutes, has long been considered a masterwork of both French and avant garde film.

Contact The Block Museum of Art for more information: (847) 491-4000 or email us at