How does anyone tell the story of Henri Langlois? Distilling it is an unenviable undertaking, but certainly one worth doing. So let us praise director Jacques Richard for daring to whip Langlois's life (he died at 62 in 1977), his monumental mission to save cinema, and the ethos of his legendary Cinemathèque Française into something presentable. Richard's documentary, ''Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinemathèque," has an unwieldiness that befits a figure who, by the end, had ballooned to Orson Welles proportions.
The film, which opens today at the Coolidge, is a sound piece of profiling that has miles of archival footage of the affable, pop-eyed Langlois enthusing. He was a cinephile whose dogmatic passion and packrat nature led, rather magically, to archivism. In one famous example, he held on to the negatives of Jean Renoir's 1936 pastoral romance ''A Day in the Country" through the German occupation; after the war he bestowed them on the film's producer, asking only for a print of the film in return.
The Cinemathèque, which he founded with his friend Georges Franju in 1935, was what Langlois was meant to do. As the silent pictures on which he grew up were being phased out and their prints thrown away, he became intent on saving them.
The Cinemathèque was a place for movie nuts to see films and obsessively discuss them, but when Langlois began to store the rust-prone cans, it became a shelter for them as well. By 1944, there were 50,000 titles, and the Cinemathèque didn't arrive at its first real home at 7 Avenue de Messine until later. Even that space's theater was so small and the moviegoers so fervid that Langlois took to projecting movies in the corridors and stairwells, inspiring someone in Richard's documentary to quip that Avenue de Messine was the site of the first multiplex.
''The Phantom of the Cinemathèque" grazes Langlois's ambiguous relationship with Mary Meerson, who was a Cinemathèque fund-raiser, most likely his caretaker, and possibly his lover. And after an hour or so, the film brings us to 1968 and the attempts of Andre Malraux, then the French culture minister, to oust Langlois from his own institution. The threat inspired an epic, notoriously violent rebuke from the students of Paris, who took to the streets in Langlois's defense. That event, as well as the mystery concerning the unhappy fate of Langlois's elaborate film memorabilia museum, seem to give the movie the shape and perspective that are missing elsewhere.
Richard's movie is a curious affair, logy yet stuffed with many bon-bons, including Langlois's gleeful pinning of the French Legion of Honor medal on a surprised Alfred Hitchcock. The typical complaints about such a chatty, rambling, anecdote-strewn movie seem inadequate. Sure, it's nearly two hours of living and dead talking heads, but what heads they are! Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Eric Rohmer, and Simone Signoret. Also present is Philippe Garrel, a pet cause of Langlois's in the 1970s, who's made an amazing upcoming film about the student revolts called ''The Regular Lovers."
These people and many more extol someone who holds an ineffable and complicated place for the movies. There was something wonderfully foolish about his reverence -- he believed that nearly all movies were worth saving. And the tale of this rotund man, with his unquenchable passion and ark-load of supporters is, to a great extent, the history of the cinema itself.