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The Film That Plato Didn't Make

Movies: French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy wrote and directed a love story. His friends love it. Critics hate it. The public is simply yawning.

March 28, 1997|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — OK, so Plato and Descartes never made a major motion picture. But why shouldn't a 20th century philosopher?

France's Bernard-Henri Levy, as famed for his networking skills, dark telegenic good looks and open-necked white shirts as for the profundity and ambitious breadth of his thought, has done it. For his cast, he got together Alain Delon, Lauren Bacall and his own actress wife, Arielle Dombasle.

For the location, Levy chose steamy, color-drenched Mexico. For the script, which he wrote with an executive from the Paris news magazine Le Point, in which he has a column, Levy spun a tale of a washed-up expatriate and Hemingway-esque writer fond of booze and boxing (Delon), who is redeemed by the love of a young and beautiful admirer (Dombasle).

In terms of cinema technique and highbrow content, the film was meant to have oodles. During 11 weeks of shooting in rainstorm-soaked Cuernavaca near Mexico City and the Pacific coastal resort of Ixtapa, Levy kept a videocassette of Martin Scorsese's "Casino" as a bedside companion, he said.

His head filled with the "immense precedents" of directors Luis Bunuel, Yves Allegret, Louis Malle, Orson Welles, Joseph Losey and Sergei Eisenstein, Levy set out to tell a "beautiful and simple love story" on film. But that wasn't going to be adequate for one of France's leading intellectuals.

His movie, the 48-year-old Levy explained, was also meant to be a variation on the legend of Faust (man sells soul), to obey the rules of classical drama laid down by another philosopher, Aristotle of ancient Greece, and to recount a more contemporary tale about the sort of peasant revolt that has erupted in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

Levy's 112-minute "Le Jour et la Nuit" (Day and Night) is the result on celluloid of all this brainstorming. The film, which opened in French theaters last month, is mentioned in the same breath in its promotional brochure with the "great lyric cinema" of industry giants John Huston and Luchino Visconti.

Maybe the Paris philosopher should have listened to that other 20th century thinker, Sam Goldwyn of MGM, who said, "If ya wanna send a message, call Western Union." For despite an aggressive marketing campaign that has been a masterpiece of logrolling and that managed, successfully for a time, to bypass the critics of the written press, Levy, it now seems clear, has begotten a bomb.

Or, in proper French, a navet, or turnip.

"Laugh-out-loud awful without touching the cult realm of 'so bad it's good,' " Variety judged in a scorching review. Its precis: "A screamingly awkward and hackneyed vanity project in which Alain Delon struggles with writer's block and Lauren Bacall plays a stiff oracle and Mexican peasants foment revolt, lame extravaganza's biggest plot twist is that Cole Porter's recurring song is 'Night and Day,' whereas pic's title is 'Day and Night.' "

The director shows the audience a lot of his wife's pouting mouth, long legs and much more. Bizarre rumblings, like those of a volcano about to erupt or a jet hitting Mach 1, punctuate the soundtrack. Hot-air balloons are used as a metaphor (of freedom?).

"Lights! Camera! Philosophy! Birth of a Turkey" was one Paris headline writer's summary of the work by Levy (or "BHL," as the familiar talk-show guest is known to millions in France).

It wasn't BHL's first film, just his first venture into fiction. In 1994, his documentary about war-ravaged Bosnia was acclaimed by critics at the Cannes Film Festival. (Another person, less impressed, threw a pie in BHL's face at the awards ceremony.)

When "Day and Night" was given its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, journalists walked out by the hundreds before the end. Many of those who stayed cheered in mockery when Delon's on-screen character died.

"I get the impression that some of you didn't like the film," Delon remarked at the news conference later.

For the 60-year-old French actor, it was his first movie appearance in three years.

For Bacall, who speaks her lines in French in her smoky, well-known voice, the part of Sonia, a mysterious French-speaking American who hovers around Delon's character, was the first role she had been offered in a continental European film.

"It is not an easy thing to do, to do a film in a foreign language," the 72-year-old actress, whose career spans more than half a century, told reporters in Berlin. "I hope I succeeded in some degree. I hope to be in more films here."

Levy, however, might not be behind the camera. For though there was plenty of advance puffery on television and cover stories in friendly magazines (examples: "The BHL Case" in L'Evenement du Jeudi, and "Delon: the Seducer Is Back" in Paris Match), the French public has proved largely indifferent to his film.

In its first two weeks in Paris, "Day and Night" attracted just 29,957 paying customers, while Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You," which premiered at the same time, drew 320,227.

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