Philosopher who thinks a turkey is a masterpiece

John Lichfield on the French intellectual accused by film critics of being too clever for his own good ...

The question arises: would Aristotle or Nietzsche have made good movies? Or, at the very least, would people have gone to see them?

Bernard-Henri Levy, philosopher, novelist, political campaigner and Parisian television intellectual par excellence, has just written and directed his first feature film. The movie, Le Jour et La Nuit, would appear to have everything going for it. Alain Delon, heart-throb of the 1960s, makes his first screen appearance for years. There is a cameo role for Lauren Bacall. The beautiful actress, Arielle Dombasle (who happens to be the wife of the philosopher), spends most of the 110-minute running time in the nude, as do the rest of the cast.

Most usefully of all, Le Jour et La Nuit enjoyed an extraordinarily positive, pre-launch build-up in glossy French periodicals (thanks, it is claimed, to the personal contacts of its director). It was a late entry in the Berlin Film Festival last week (thanks to the personal intervention of the director's friends, including the former French culture minister, Jack Lang).

No matter. Le Jour et La Nuit has been an unmitigated critical disaster and a complete box office flop. In its first week, it attracted 45,000 people - less than half the predicted number. Cinemas all over France report scores of people leaving before the end, some after only 20 minutes. Audiences at the Berlin festival howled with laughter when the movie was shown last Monday; Le Jour et La Nuit, however, is not supposed to be funny.

Liberation described it as a film about art, passion and politics. Unfortunately, the newspaper concluded, it approaches these themes "with the subtlety of a bulldozer in a turnip field". Le Monde said the movie ended with the perfect image: the cast borne aloft in a series of hot-air balloons.

Levy, 48, universally known as BHL, once led a charmed existence, moving effortlessly between philosophy, novel-writing and frequent appearances on the interminable intellectual chat shows which occupy late evenings on French TV. It was the daddy of all these shows, Apostrophes, which first made Levy's name when it hailed him as a "New Philosopher" in 1977. His best known early work was La Barbarie a visage humain. A genuinely skilful and provocative writer, BHL promoted personal liberty and castigated the flirtations with totalitarianism of the post-war intellectual tradition in France. ("Nothing is more terrifying than the will to purity. To dream of a perfect society is the stuff of nightmares...")

For several years now, he has been getting on the nerves of people - and publications - who once admired his writing and forgave him his open white shirts, floppy black hair and film star looks, not to mention his film star wife. His passionate but sanctimonious defence of the Bosnian cause in the Balkan war annoyed many on the right and left. His first attempt at playwriting flopped.

On this occasion, he may have played into the hands of his enemies by trying to be too clever. The Paris film critics were denied an advance viewing of his film. Instead, he fixed up a series of adulatory previews in magazines where he had high-level connections (six pages in Paris Match, eight pages in Le Point). When the movie opened, the critics were evidently determined to detest it, and were not disappointed.

Le Jour et La Nuit is the story of an ageing French writer (Delon) who suffers a nervous breakdown and flees to Mexico, pursued by - among others - an actress (Dombasle) who wishes to star in the film of his latest book. Assorted terrorists and the mysterious Sonia (Bacall) stray across the screen from time to time. To summarise the critics: the intended message (and there must be one) is swamped under naked bodies and the excessive pouting of the director's wife.

Both she and BHL reject all criticism and insist the movie is a masterpiece. Ms Dombasle said: "As soon as one attempts something of importance, people become hysterical. No matter. When we are all dead, the film will live on." Levy complained in an interview with Le Parisien that there had been a 20-year conspiracy to do him down and a media conspiracy to berate his movie.

Was it not rather presumptuous, the newspaper asked, to think he could become a cinema director overnight?

"It can be done. I still believe it can be done," BHL replied. "I continue to believe that Le Jour et La Nuit is a beautiful film, which is a lot like me."

Sport
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week