Bernard-Henri Levy: Cool French Guy at War

Muddled documentary ‘The Will To See’ has us wondering what we’re actually seeing

Bernard-Henri Levy is a French public intellectual best known for his association with the New Philosophers, although in terms of the current century, if you’ve heard of him at all, it is most likely for his work as a war correspondent in a wide variety of locations. As to which locations I am tempted to just say…all of them, since his newest film, the documentary The Will To See, seems determined to cover as many locations as possible while giving as little context as possible for what Levy was doing in any individual one.

We start out with Boko Haram in Nigeria, and a harrowing opening story about how they cut off a woman’s arm. Nothing else in the film comes close to that level of brutality, which makes the event an excellent frame for the rest of Levy’s oeuvre about how all the people he meets personally are good guys, while the ones they fight are unthinking savages.

Levy is, of course, far too classy a guy to ever actually say this explicitly. It wasn’t until the final half hour that I could even clearly identify that this was the closest thing to a clear editorial pattern in his work. The Will To See is an extremely disorienting film like that, with Levy’s dreamlike narration practically working as a form of jet lag with the constant travel. Then there are the abrupt cuts, so that we might suddenly be in a different country and/or decade compared to a few seconds ago. Levy is always careful to make sure we know who the good guys and the bad guys are as quickly as possible while extending the minimum effort to explain who they are or why they’re even fighting.

Of the many locations featured in The Will To See, a title that emphasizes how importance it is that we keep seeing war zones, Donbass has received the bulk of coverage in the wake of the film’s April 29th release, for the rather unsurprising reason that there’s a war going on in Ukraine right now. But there’s a bit of a twist there in that they filmed The Will To See  in 2020, long before the open invasion. At that time Russian forces were supposedly besieging Ukraine and blowing up tourist neighborhoods outside of Mariupol. I write supposedly because Levy doesn’t even clearly say, let alone offer visual evidence, that the Russians were actually doing anything in the areas he was touring. He claims that there are apparently invisible Russian snipers everywhere and we’re just…supposed to take his word for it.

The Ukraine section in general is so outrageously brief that anyone checking in to this movie to see the Zelensky interview featured heavily in the film’s marketing will be quite disappointed. Not only does the film cut off Zelensky before he actually says much of anything, his interview is in black-and-white, whereas the image circulated to press to promote Zelensky’s appearance is in full color, and seems to be from a completely different interview not appearing in this film.

This isn’t the only case of Levy finding someone interesting to interview only to quickly lose interest and get back to his jet-setting narration. Very early on Levy finds a French person who ran off to join ISIS. Well, maybe. The guy in question refuses to answer the question of whether he joined ISIS, says he has his own questions, and then we leave the scene. Now, Levy is running a mass interview at what I think is some kind of French reeducation camp for children with parents that got wrapped up in the fight in Syria somehow. He promises to check their names in France to see if he can get the ones with French passports out of the country. Whether Levy ever actually did this, I have no idea, because it’s back to another abrupt cut.

The Will To See assumes a frankly unreasonable amount of knowledge from just about any conceivable viewer, as if we’re supposed to already know why Levy is going to any new, random country. His trip to Bangladesh, a country that isn’t currently a warzone, where he celebrates how Bangladesh isn’t a warzone, is only belatedly justified by a visit to a refugee shantytown. Bangladesh is, to be clear, still one of the good countries, just because they’re taking in large numbers of refugees at all.

Is this some kind of covert attack against French political culture? Well once again I’m…not sure. Levy responds with disgust to the Yellow Vest Protests at one point, comparing it to whatever war zone he came from right before that abrupt cut. He leaves entirely unclear his specific issue with the Yellow Vest Protests. Presumably it’s ideological, rather than violent, since in a later minimum context scene we see Levy bragging about being an early booster for the Euromaidan Protest in 2014 Ukraine, explicitly hoping that their activism spreads throughout Europe. While Levy has edited The Will To See in such a way as to imply that the Yellow Vest Protests were violent and the Euromaidan Protest wasn’t, that simply isn’t a reasonable statement to make for anyone who’s seen footage of both.

The Ukraine sections, appropriately enough, mainly just showcase Levy’s racism, as he expresses horror that such awful things could happen to white people–a sentiment most pundits have been trying to avoid saying out loud, with many failing to do so. There’s a paternalism to Levy’s whole tone that’s only really obvious if you’re deliberately watching for it. And for a guy who claims to like refugees so much, he lingers an awful lot on the smallpox epidemic in Lesbos where women are afraid to drink water at night because, presumably, the male refugees are eager to rape them all.

There is not a smallpox epidemic in Lesbos by the way, since smallpox doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe that was just a bad translation, although for a guy who did a whole lot of international travel during 2020-era COVID surges Levy is awfully cavalier about masks. He does distribute a lot of masks to children in Lesbos, despite noting that there weren’t actually any COVID cases in Lesbos, and that the main reason the children even wanted the masks was so they could use them as toys.

With attention to detail this bad it’s hard to take any of Levy’s conclusions seriously, even outside of the rest of his often controversial career. He somehow manages to imply that all the bad stuff that happened in Libya was because the Russians and the Turks. An unintentionally hilarious trip to Afghanistan functions as obvious agitprop for Ahmad Massoud. He frames as tragic a belated postscript acknowledging that the Taliban quickly took the country over almost as soon as the Americans left, but that actually completely undermines the idea that Ahmad Massoud was anywhere near as popular or competent as Levy had been implying.

While unwilling to say so explicitly, it’s fairly clear that Levy thinks the only solution to any of the conflicts he documents is more interventions. It’s only when the French cowardly leave any of these military entanglements that bad stuff happens, as if the situation wasn’t even worse when they were still there. The Will To See is pretentious propaganda like that. But even if you agree with Levy ideologically, his film is almost completely unwatchable unless you already have a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of all the stuff he’s talking about. Which makes The Will To See an unusually pointless documentary, where pretty much the only thing you’re likely to learn is that Bernard-Henri Levy is a very cool, very serious dude, especially when he helps Kurdish fighters set up a flag outside of some caves.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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