Watching Bernard-Henri Lévy as He Shows Us the World As It Is
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President Putin’s territorial march in Eastern Europe will prove Bernard-Henri Lévy right, a fact that endlessly depresses the peripatetic French public intellectual. That was the takeaway from Mr. Lévy’s new documentary “The Will to See,” which this week made its American premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival.
The documentary follows a book by the same name, brought out in the fall by Yale University Press. Both emerge from a series of dispatches Mr. Lévy composed on assignment for Paris Match, La Repubblica, and the Wall Street Journal, among others.
“Mr. Putin has declared war on Europe, and the West,” Mr. Lévy writes in the Wall Street Journal. While the terms of that war will be negotiated by diplomats in the shadow of tanks, “The Will to See” demonstrates how art and culture can take this moment seriously.
There is no precise American analogue for the role Mr. Lévy plays in France. He is a philosopher reporter and an occasional shadow foreign minister. In the movie, we see him ring up President Macron from a military bunker in Kurdistan like one would call an old friend. Many feel he was the driving force behind France’s role in ousting Muammar Gadhafi in Libya. He also does fashion shoots.
Glamorous, wealthy, and well connected, he makes a routine of betraying the shibboleths of the chattering classes, not least by his unwavering support for Israel. He is so well known to the French public that he one-ups Madonna, in that he is known by not a first name but an acronym — BHL.
“The Will to See” follows Mr. Lévy, clad in his trademark open-collar white shirt and black Charvet suit, as he tours some of the world’s most unfortunate locales. Mr. Lévy gets top billing, but the real star is the footage that his camera crew captures along the way — firefights in Libya, corpses in Nigeria, refugee camps in Lesbos, craggy Kurdish terrain, and trenches in Ukraine that look as if they could have been dug in 1916.
The film is shot in a close-up style, with the camera lingering on faces or bouncing along in armored cars. One particularly captivating moment in Libya records Mr. Lévy being pursued by gunmen bellowing about expelling “the Jewish dog” from their city.
This world tour has been running for decades, but it lands powerfully now. At a moment of lockdown and withdrawal, Mr. Lévy makes the essential case that America and Europe should worry more about errors of omission than commission. If they retreat, things get worse. The images of Afghans hanging off taxiing airplanes that we all have downloaded in our memories make his point all too well.
“So much is working against the return of empathy to the public sphere that it is easy to be skeptical of this message, to respond with sarcasm or scorn,” writes Anne Applebaum in her review of Mr. Lévy’s book.
Some readers and viewers will be tempted to respond with this cynicism. Mr. Lévy has no army behind him, and the camera never drifts too far from his artfully disheveled visage. He wants to show suffering, but it is sometimes hard to separate that from “The BHL Show.”
Yet Mr. Lévy is redeemed by his willingness to pull no punches when it comes to describing the world as it is. In a question-and-answer session following the screening, he rejected the notion that colonialism is to blame for the woes of the world.
Seeing such suffering so close brought into focus what he calls “the new faces of imperialism,” namely Russian expansion and Turkish aggression. At a time when so many intellectuals have forfeited the high ground, Mr. Lévy stubbornly occupies it. He’s not perfect, but he’s right.
“The Will to See” makes its premiere as international currents seem arrayed against its sensibilities. Hopeful images of Afghan girls at a soccer game look different after the American abandonment. Those Ukrainian trenches might soon be filled with bodies. Mr. Lévy shows that when America leaves, barbarism usually fills the void.
When asked what he would tell those whom America and Europe have left behind, Mr. Lévy replies: “I admire their courage, but I am too ashamed to say anything else.” He is all too aware of the gap between seeing and doing. He is unafraid to advocate the use of force, which has its own kind of moral force.
As Mr. Lévy jets from one war zone to another, what is striking is how visually similar they all are. Poor excuses for shelter, a surfeit of guns, trash-clogged streets, and joyless and menacing public squares compose the topography of misery.
The book, though, has a different point of departure. It begins with an autobiographically inflected history of French intellectual life in the 1960s, replete with lectures and seminars by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan.
This is where and when Mr. Lévy came to his ideal of Europe as a place where a person can encounter “shops selling junk made in Bengali sweatshops” as well as “the ghosts of Kafka, Canetti, and Joyce.”
This culture matters to Mr. Lévy, but it doesn’t make a difference to the people who need help. He sees not only the mangled and desperate, but also his own impotence. He notes that there’s a lawless hopelessness in Mogadishu and that the poverty in Bangladesh is rawer.
BHL sees the twin catastrophes in Ukraine and Afghanistan as preventable, but unprevented, failures. He brings Covid masks to a refugee camp, but nobody is infected. What they really need is more bathrooms.
Even while he is attuned to the place where idealism meets realpolitik, Mr. Lévy is aiming for something more universal. “A reflex is not an immutable automatism, not a trick of the blood, and even less an instinct,” he writes. His work is an attempt to strengthen this reflex, to hone our moral intuition via exposure to the reality of human suffering.
So-called realists, skeptics, and pacifists have let this reflex atrophy. They have replaced the reflex to help with reflexive resignation. You don’t have to accompany Mr. Lévy to “the Jurassic Park of sovietism” in Donetsk or a “terrible archaic Verdun” in the bombed out battlefields of the same region to begin to wonder what this reflex might mean, and what it could do if harnessed properly.
Image: Bernard-Henri Lévy in January 2019. Via the Nexus Institute/Wikimedia Commons.