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 ...
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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."