The prankster who threw a pie in the face of dashing Gallic writer-philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy — BHL to his countrymen — when his docu “Bosna!” about war-torn Yugoslavia preemed at Cannes in 1994, should have saved his ammunition for BHL’s fiction debut, “Day and Night.” A screamingly awkward and hackneyed vanity project in which Alain Delon struggles with writer’s block and Lauren Bacall plays a stiff oracle while shapely women disrobe 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.”
Of course, the fact that it’s a really bad movie needn’t interfere with its marketability. Despite an airtight embargo on advance screenings for critics, Delon, leading lady Arielle Dombasle and BHL have garnered the kind of magazine and TV coverage in Gaul generally reserved for O.J. Simpson in the U.S.
The equation of Delon and Bacall in the company of popular younger stalwarts of the Euroscreen is sure to attract auds in France and beyond, but pic itself is laugh-out-loud awful without touching the cult realm of “so bad it’s good.” Pic’s out-of-competition screening at Berlin provoked derision of legendary proportions.
Famed as much for his fine head of hair, trademark white shirts and marriage of several years to Dombasle as for his acclaimed volumes on moral and ethical issues, BHL has monopolized a beach and a fashionably decrepit estate in Mexico to stage a profoundly misguided potboiler that would make even Harold Robbins wince.
It’s been 10 years since aging literary lion Alexandre (Delon) left Paris for Mexico with his lovely young wife, Ariane (Marianne Denicourt), and shifty manservant-cum-secretary Lucien (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) in tow. Sonia (Bacall), whose underwritten role is meant to pass for mysteriousness, hovers on the periphery.
As pic opens to Ella Fitzgerald’s spirited interpretation of “Night and Day,” statuesque Parisian actress Laure (Dombasle) and her caricature of a producer Raoul Filippi (TV comic Karl Zero) arrive at Alexandre’s remote retreat. The writer has made a potentially Faustian bargain to finally allow his first novel to be made into a movie, with Laure as the beloved book’s sensuous heroine.
Meanwhile, Ariane is thigh-deep in an adulterous affair with arrogant young Franco-Mexican scientist Carlo (Xavier Beauvois), who specializes in earthquakes, erupting volcanoes and other rumbles. To round things off, Cristobal (Francisco Rabal), Alexandre’s across-the-bay neighbor, has his strongmen evict a penniless chicken farmer with sickly offspring and otherwise arouses the enmity of the downtrodden locals. (In BHL’s successful campaign to steer clear of any trace of originality, the kitchen help spit on Cristobal’s photo and the local priest blesses the rebels.)
Laure and Filippi first spy Delon from the ground as he drifts by in a majestic hot air balloon, bellowing enigmatic words of welcome.
Clumsy editing and borderline continuity conspire to make an already ludicrous story even less convincing. The only truly memorable lensing depicts colorful hot air balloons arrayed on the shore or floating past Mexican scenery. Filmdom’s unwritten rule whereby young women must always remove their clothes while positioned in front of a floor-to-ceiling open window visible to the population of three counties is obeyed twice within pic’s initial quarter hour. Thereafter, smugly voyeuristic pic manages to be both ponderous and insignificant.
Maurice Jarre’s eclectic score is almost always show-offy and intrusive but sounds positively subtle when compared to the ambient sound design, which features the incessant rumble of distant earthquakes and amplified tropical birds intent on upstaging pontificating thesps. Given the corny dialogue, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
In addition to an otherwise distinguished cast and crew, BHL has the ingredients of a juicy story but nary a clue as to how to cook them. One of Bacall’s more celebrated rejoinders was “Just whistle” — this outing, alas, is an invitation to catcalls.