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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
Life and Style
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions