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Willing ourselves to see; looking back at Marilyn Monroe; and listening to John Wayne Gacy

Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syrian Kurdistan in "The Will to See."Cohen Media Group

Bernard-Henri Lévy, the popular French media intellectual, war reporter, and writer, is kind of like the David Attenborough of war zones. While Attenborough shows the beauty of ecological habitats in danger of disappearing, Lévy exposes the horrors of conflicts that seem like they will never go away.

His documentary (co-directed with Marc Roussel) “The Will to See” plunges the viewer into his frenetic globe-hopping to the places the world would prefer to forget. He gets a call from a Nigerian human rights worker about Christian people being persecuted in his country. Despite his busy schedule, Lévy hears something in the man’s voice that compels him to investigate.


He arrives at a gruesome killing field filled with mutilated bodies butchered by Islamist fanatics. There he meets a woman with a missing arm. She was pregnant at the time she was maimed, and her life was spared because the warlord didn’t want to see her disemboweled in that condition. Instead, he had his followers chop off her arm bit by bit.

He learns later that the woman died in another raid. The terrorists operate with impunity, Lévy says, and in one harrowing scene the cameraman is chased off by a terrorist with a giant machete.

How does Lévy respond to such atrocities? He speaks and he writes to remind the public about them. The episodes in this film (also a book of the same title published last October) are from a series of articles he wrote for the Paris Match, La Reppublica, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.

Bernard-Henri Lévy in Bangladesh in "The Will to See." Cohen Media Group

He also has the ear of the powerful. In 2011, he convinced then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy that France should support the rebels against the Khadafy regime in Libya. The UN Security Council voted to intervene. With the support of the West, Khadafy was overthrown and killed, but the country devolved into bloody anarchy.


Nine years later, Lévy returns to Tripoli to revisit a comrade, the rebel leader who liberated the city. He shows old footage of himself declaiming to a Libyan crowd that “Liberty always ends up triumphing over tyranny!” But it doesn’t seem that way anymore, and Lévy prepares to tape an address for a Misrata TV station calling for peace. His plans are foiled when pickup trucks full of armed thugs shouting antisemitic threats chase him and his motorcade out of town.

One of the forgotten war zones he covers has since reentered the world’s consciousness. Lévy journeys back to the Donbass region where he was present six years before when the Russian-backed separatists waged war with the Ukrainian government, a conflict that settled into a volatile stalemate during which thousands lost their lives. In 2019, he visits the country’s new president, a comedian-turned-politician named Volodymyr Zelensky. Later he asks Zelensky to allow him to tour the front lines. “There is war, real war, at the gates of Europe,” he says. “And I want to show . . . its face.”

Bernard-Henri Lévy (right) with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in "The Will to See." Cohen Media Group

We see that face every day now.

Other stops include Afghanistan, Darfur, and Mogadishu. None have improved since the last time Lévy had witnessed their turmoil. Though Lévy’s voice-over narration verges from the eloquent to the orotund, the film’s images are always lucid and haunting. You just need the will to see them.

“The Will To See” opens at the Kendall Square Cinema on May 6.


Go to www.landmarktheatres.com/boston/kendall-square-cinema#upcoming or cohenmedia.net/product/the-will-to-see.

Monroe doctrine

Sixty years after she died at 36 in 1962 of a drug overdose, Marilyn Monroe still compels our gaze with her mystery and allure. Continuing this fascination, Andrew Dominik’s NC-17 adaptation of “Blonde,” the 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates, is expected to be released this December, and in the meantime there is Emma Cooper’s documentary “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes.” Cooper focuses on the investigations of Anthony Summers, author of the 1985 book “Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe,” who has been obsessed with the subject for almost 40 years. He has stored away hundreds of hours of tapes he recorded to write the book, plus recordings of Monroe herself.

Except for Monroe’s, all these voices are lip-synched by actors filmed in blurry snippets, a variation on the reenactment device which has the virtue of being clearly not real. The “interviewees” include Billy Wilder, who filmed Monroe in “Some Like It Hot” (1959) and “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) and who recalls how, during the latter film, Monroe’s then-husband, Joe DiMaggio, became angry when they shot the legendary subway vent/skirt-blowing scene. Another taped “interviewee” relates how DiMaggio beat up Monroe at their hotel afterward. The stand-in John Huston reminisces about how sweet and lost Monroe seemed when he directed her in her last film, “The Misfits” (1961), and it was clear that her addiction to barbiturates and other pills was taking its toll.


So did Monroe kill herself? Was it a homicide pulled off by the Mafia, or the CIA, or her reputed lovers President John Kennedy and his brother Robert, the attorney general, or some combination of them all? These are questions Summers has been asking himself for decades, and the film’s conclusions might not satisfy conspiracy theorists, but the film itself does add depth and detail to Monroe’s mystique and tragedy.

“The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” can be streamed on Netflix.

Go to www.netflix.com/title/81216491.

Marilyn Monroe in "The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes." Netflix

Getting away with murder

Moving on from the sublime to the hideous, tape-wise, is Joe Berlinger’s three-part “Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes.” Berlinger, who set the standard for true-crime documentaries with his “Paradise Lost” trilogy (1996-2011) made with the late Bruce Sinofsky, has unearthed 60 hours of audio recordings between Gacy and his defense team in which the serial killer of 33 boys and young men demonstrates his gift for lying, gaslighting, schmoozing, and psychopathic ruthlessness that, along with the homophobia of the law enforcement system and society in general at the time, made it possible for him to practice his homicidal hobby for six years, from 1972 to 1978.

“Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes” can be streamed on Netflix.

Go to www.netflix.com/title/81298614.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.

John Wayne Gacy in "Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes."Netflix