“The Tricolor, a snifter of cognac, a flaring hem, a tilted skylight – these have been demoted to secondary symbols of France,” wrote Time magazine in 1964. “The primary symbol is an image of a young man slouching in a café chair, his socks sagging over broken shoelaces, his shirt open to the waist, his arms dangling to the floor, where his knuckles drag. A Gauloise rests in his gibbon lips, and its smoke meanders from his attractively broken, Z-shaped nose. Out of the Left Bank by the New Wave, he is Jean-Paul Belmondo – the natural son of the Existentialist conception, standing for everything and nothing at 738 mph.”
Born in Paris in 1933, Belmondo, who turns 80 today, made his name in 1960, when Jean-Luc Godard cast him as Michel Poiccard, the hip ne’er-do-well anti-hero of the groundbreaking À bout de souffle. Modelling himself after Humphrey Bogart and the tough-talking protagonists of American B-movies, Poiccard was a new breed of hero in French cinema: cool, flip, directionless, arrogant. During the pre- and immediate postwar years, Jean Gabin ruled the French box office with his brand of brooding, everyman romanticism. Now the baton was passed on.
Belmondo became a favourite of directors of the French New Wave, working with Godard again on Une femme est une femme (1961) and Pierrot le fou (1965), with François Truffaut on 1969’s La Sirène du Mississipi, and with Alain Resnais on Stavisky… (1974), with Belmondo as the eponymous swindler in 1930s France. He worked twice with Jean-Pierre Melville, as a priest during the Occupation in Léon Morin, prêtre (1961) and, on more familiar ground, as the trench-coated gunman in Le Doulos (1962).
Nicknamed ‘Bébel’ by the French public, Belmondo has also taken his charismatic image beyond auteur-driven cinema to glossier, mainstream thrillers such as That Man from Rio (1964), Borsalino (1970) and Le Professionel (1981), playing an iconic stream of spies, crooks, gunmen and adventurers. His productivity slowed in later years as he left the onscreen action to a new generation of stars, preferring to concentrate on his stage work. A seven-year silence on both stage and screen followed a stroke in 2001, but he returned in 2008 with Un homme et son chien.
The essential Belmondo
- À bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
- Classe tous risques (Claude Sautet, 1960)
- Two Women (Vittorio de Sica, 1960)
- Léon Morin, prêtre (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)
- Une femme est une femme (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)
- Le Doulos (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)
- That Man from Rio (Philippe de Broca, 1964)
- Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
- La Sirène du Mississipi (François Truffaut, 1969)
- Stavisky… (Alain Resnais, 1974)