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Culture

Is it possible to love the world’s most ubiquitous Jewish intellectual as much as he loves himself?

One of the sweetest privileges of living in the United States of America is the ability to go decades without knowing what a “Bernard-Henri Lévy” is. My own honeymoon of ignorance ended a few years back, when the latest storm of Roman Polanski takes swept across the internet and it came to my attention that someone with the initials BHL had taken up the old child-rapist’s cause.

Forgetting in my nausea that France has different rules for three-letter celebrity initialisms, I jumped to the conclusion that this guy must be a politician or an actor. Shortly thereafter, when I read that he had defended another rapist, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK, that is), I learned that he was a philosopher, never especially beloved but somehow impossible to get rid of — a NPH or JGL of the French intelligentsia, if you will.

BHL is so easy to hate that after a while you may begin to feel an involuntary twinge of fondness, much as victims of sensory deprivation begin to hallucinate strange sounds and sights to fill the void. He sometimes seems to involve himself in ennobling causes solely for the purpose for making himself look ignoble once more.

In 1993, he made a highly-publicized visit to Bosnia to raise awareness of ethnic cleansing. Serbian gunfire made it almost impossible to leave the country, which created an international crisis: BHL needed to fly to the south of France to marry his fiancé, the movie star Arielle Dombasle. The crisis was averted when he successfully petitioned the president of France to send a jet. “What was I supposed to do? Not get married?” he said later. “I did so much for the French government, in the name of the French government, that it was really the least they could do to help me fly there.” The episode earned him a different three-letter nickname: DHS, for “Deux Heures à Sarajevo.”

BHL’s career is overflowing with this kind of thing. He has a Franzen-esque penchant for saying the perfectly wrong thing at the perfectly wrong time. The difference is that Jonathan Franzen is worth perhaps $10 million, all self-earned, whereas BHL is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $215 million, most of it inherited from his timber tycoon father; used to look a lot like Timothée Chalamet; and is still, at age 73, entirely capable of rocking a crisp white dress shirt (he also has a full head of thick, wavy, salt-and-pepper hair, because of course he does). At this point he is completely impervious to hatred, which makes it all the more tempting to hate him, which makes it all the more chilling to consider that he might be one of the least hateable celebrity-intellectuals France currently has on tap.

Before he was a celebrity-intellectual, he was a plain-old intellectual — one of a few dozen self-declared New Philosophers. Like the French New Wave of the 1960s and the New French Extremism of the 2000s, the New Philosophers of the 1970s were defined mostly by what they rejected: Marxism; Maoism; Existentialism, and the other grandiose left-wing isms that had, in their view, paved the way for political tyranny. Though BHL’s distrust of the Left hasn’t much changed in the last 50 years, the Left certainly has: in the 70s, when you needed an example of the fringe gone rotten, the Khmer Rouge and the Soviet Union were always at your disposal. 21st-century skeptics have had to make do with Fidel Castro’s corpse and some college students.

BHL insists (with a dash of nostalgia, perhaps?) that the contemporary Left only appears harmless: its scorn for universals like the brotherhood of man will be the death of us all, unless its wishy-washiness on Islamofascism does the job first. Today’s radicals, he argued in 2008’s “Left in Dark Times,” hate American imperialism more than they love peace, hate Israel more than they love Palestine, hate racism more than they love people of color, hate oppression more than they love the oppressed, etc. The psychology isn’t unreasonable, though — as with so many of the recent liberal attacks on the Left — one has the sense of a Fortune 500 corporation that thinks its profits are under threat from the local mom-and-pop shop.

Because I have never met BHL and never will, I have no way of knowing for sure what he thinks of his fellow man. To judge strictly from “The Will To See,” the latest of several globe-trotting documentaries he’s directed in the last decade, he loves the oppressed peoples of the world a full order of magnitude less than he loves the sound of his own voice.

Billed as an awareness-raising tour of the 21st century’s humanitarian crises, the film is really an idealized self-portrait of a man whose head is matched only by his heart, who will gladly chat with a group of imprisoned teenagers from dawn to whenever he has to jet off to the next place. He goes to Nigeria, Kurdistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Libya and Afghanistan to address soldiers, students, freedom fighters and protesters, his narration oozing over everything like hot tar, his famous face luring the camera away from the unfamiliar. The pace is so brisk and the filmmaking so dull that almost nothing lingers in the memory besides the great philosopher himself.

So forgettable is “The Will To See” that a few times I worried that I was the problem — i.e., that the reason I had trouble keeping the people and places from mushing together is because I’m a spoiled Westerner. You can imagine my relief when I heard BHL admit, toward the end of his documentary, that he, too, has trouble keeping his destinations straight: strolling through Kabul, he murmurs, “At times I wonder if I’m really in Kabul or in Karachi”—apparently the two cities have “very similar streets.”

The stroll reminds BHL of his quest to learn what happened to Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was murdered in Karachi in 2002. The product of this quest, the book “Who Killed Daniel Pearl,” theorized that Pearl died because he’d stumbled upon evidence of a connection between Pakistani intelligence and Osama bin Laden. This theory was promptly ripped to shreds by Pearl’s family, journalists, intelligence agents, historians of Pakistan and terrorism experts, more than a couple of whom were puzzled by the number of times BHL described the entire nation of Pakistan as “the Devil’s own home.”

Every brave, noble thing BHL does reminds him of some brave, noble thing he’s already done; he’s like a continental counterpart to Norman Mailer — another prolific, Jewish literary celebrity who excelled at making everything about himself (though Mailer would have thought up a more interesting comparison between Kabul and Karachi).

A late-film visit to Bangladesh calls to mind the one BHL made back in 1971, when, at the age of 22, he joined a volunteer brigade of artists and intellectuals sworn to defend Bengal from the Pakistani army. The reunion would probably be quite touching — he embraces old friends and comrades, some of whom he hasn’t seen in half a century — if the camera didn’t rub our faces in the “WELCOME BACK” banner bearing his name, though that’s nothing at all compared to the earlier scene in which he explicitly likens himself to Lord Byron, who died fighting in the Greek War of Independence.

And yet: for all his present-day preening and posing and careful brow-furrowing, BHL really did risk his life in support of Bangladeshi independence. What’s more, he risked his life instead of staying on at the École normale supérieure, where half his classmates were applauding the Cultural Revolution and the other half were regurgitating Jean-Paul Sartre—who also, as it happens, applauded the Cultural Revolution, along with the Soviet purges.

There is much that is infuriating in “The Will To See,” but nothing that is fundamentally wrong; the sloppiness of the execution shouldn’t distract from the fact that other famous intellectuals could, without all that much difficulty, be traveling to distant corners of the world and drawing the West’s attention to the poverty and violence festering there. Could, but probably won’t any time soon. For now, if I had to choose between a multimillionaire egomaniac and a man who supported Mao and Stalin, I’d take the egomaniac.

“The Will To See,” directed by Bernard-Henri Lévy and Marc Roussel, was screened at the New York Jewish Film Festival.

Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic.

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