• Born 9 April 1933, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France; died 6 September 2021, Paris, France.

In March 1960, Breathless came out in Paris and, as Martin Scorsese said, it changed the course of film history. One of the most famous films of the French New Wave, Breathless was Jean-Luc Godard’s iconoclastic first feature. The cast, with the exception of the American star Jean Seberg, was also unknown, but Breathless turned its male lead, Jean-Paul Belmondo, into an overnight sensation and one of France’s leading stars of the postwar period. 

Belmondo was born in an artistic milieu (his father Paul Belmondo was a famous sculptor who has his own museum in Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris), and all his life he was a sports enthusiast, especially keen on boxing. Having graduated from the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique de Paris with a comedy prize, Belmondo in 1960 was not a complete novice. He had appeared in a handful of popular films, including, in 1958, Marc Allégret’s Sois belle et tais-toi/Blonde for Danger (also featuring his future rival Alain Delon) and Marcel Carné’s hit Les Tricheurs/Youthful Sinners. The same year he featured in Godard’s short Charlotte et son Jules/Charlotte and Her Boyfriend.

Breathless (1960)
© RAYMOND CAUCHETIER/LA GALERIE DE L’INSTANT

In Breathless, the 27-year old Belmondo plays Michel Poiccard – a petty thief, liar and cynical macho, yet irresistibly cool. The camera loves the athletic Belmondo as Poiccard, the man on the move, following him from Marseille to Paris, strolling up and down the Champs-Elysées, cruising the streets of Paris in stolen cars, roaming around women’s bedrooms, offices and cafés. A large part of the film’s appeal is down to Belmondo’s infectious energy, humour and insolence. In one famous stroke of genius, Godard makes him turn from the wheel of his car to face the camera and tell the audience, “if you don’t like the sea, if you don’t like the mountains, if you don’t like the countryside, … go to hell!”, a provocative innovation in 1960 France.

Yet, Belmondo was no obvious candidate for stardom. Unlike Alain Delon, he was no fashion plate. He had an irregular face with a nose bent by years of boxing. He was dubbed ‘il brutto’ (the ugly one) in Italy. But what he lacked in conventional prettiness, he made up in sex appeal. Soon he was on the cover of Life magazine as ‘The French Lover’. Apart from his body (his unclothed torso is generously displayed in the central bedroom scene in Breathless), Belmondo’s sexiness was connected – in a way that would now be problematic – to smoking. Stuck aggressively in his mouth, or insolently dangling, cigarettes emphasised his lips and made him look blasé and nonchalant – a look that a generation of young males would try to emulate. In Breathless, cigarettes also connect him to film noir icon Humphrey Bogart. In a key scene, Belmondo stops in front of a cinema on the Champs-Elysées that’s playing The Harder They Fall (1956). We see a poster with Bogart’s face, cigarette hanging from his lips. Belmondo then looks at the poster, and reverentially whispers ‘Bogie’.

Breathless made Belmondo both the alter ego of the director and the seductive face of the youth and modernity of the New Wave. He appeared in several other films of the movement, for instance Claude Chabrol’s A double tour (1959) and Godard’s Une femme est une femme (1961). In another career-defining role, in 1965, he was the hero of Godard’s Pierrot le fou and later appeared in Truffaut’s La Sirène du Mississipi/Mississippi Mermaid in 1969 and Alain Resnais’s Stavisky in 1974. In fact, so strong is the association between Belmondo and the New Wave that many books on the topic feature him on the cover.

Meanwhile, Belmondo quickly branched out into a more mainstream cinema. Particularly notable is his brilliant trilogy with Jean-Pierre Melville: Léon Morin, prêtre (1961), Le Doulos (1962) and L’Ainé des Ferchaux (1963), in which he demonstrates an impressive performative range, playing respectively a Catholic priest tempted by an attractive woman, a mysterious gangster/informer and a troubled boxer on the loose. 

The comedy Un singe en hiver/It’s Hot in Hell (Henri Verneuil, 1962), co-starring the veteran Jean Gabin (one of Belmondo’s models), and the colourful adventure movie L’Homme de Rio (Philippe de Broca, 1964) propelled him to even greater heights of fame and fortune. 

Jean-Paul Belmondo on the cover of Sight and Sound, autumn 1964

Off-screen, his sex appeal was confirmed by affairs with a number of actresses, including Ursula Andress, and he divorced his wife Elodie Constantin, with whom he had three children. His meteoric rise was such that a Parisian cinema showed a ‘Belmondorama’ festival in 1964, and he published a book of souvenirs at the age of 30. He was in huge demand in France and Italy, but wisely resisted Hollywood. As he observed, “People wanted me to go to Hollywood. However, I bet my reputation went no further than Greenwich Village. I would have ended up as an Italian or a Frenchman, but not in Steve McQueen parts. They did not need me!”

Nor did Belmondo need Hollywood, as throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s he triumphed at the French box office in swashbucklers, comedies and action thrillers. As years went on, he moved firmly to the popular camp. He turned into a tough avenging hero, indifferently cop or gangster, more Bronson than Bogart, in films like Borsalino (Jacques Deray, 1970, also starring Delon), L’Animal (Claude Zidi, 1977), Le Professionnel (Georges Lautner, 1981), L’As des as/Ace of Aces (Gérard Oury, 1982) and many others including the programmatically titled Flic ou voyou/Cop or Hood (1979). 

Poster for Le Professionel (1981)

He was still athletic, tanned and sexy, though in a rougher mode, routinely knocking out opponents and seducing women, while grinning with a huge cigar stuck in his mouth (a favourite pose). Cinephile critics naturally despised these films, and from the point of view of sexual politics, some make difficult viewing today, but his adoring public rushed to see ‘Bébel’, cheering at his invincible comic-book hero exploits and admiring his spectacular stunts, mostly performed by himself. He justified his choice of films by arguing that without him, classics like Pierrot le fou, Stavisky and La Sirène du Mississipi would not have been made.

With a few exceptions, such as Claude Lelouch’s Les Misérables (1995), Belmondo’s box-office appeal began to wane from the late 1980s. His response was to go back to where he started, the theatre. He bought the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris in 1991 and staged many successful productions. He was hilariously funny in the Feydeau farce A Flea in Her Ear in October 1996, but I am sure I was not the only person in the audience to applaud not just the accomplished stage actor but the mythical star’s accumulated filmic memory.
 
In the latter part of his life, Belmondo periodically surfaced in the media, for his marriage to the much younger Natty Tardivel in 2002 (they had a child in 2003 and divorced in 2008) or, worryingly, when he had a stroke in 2001. The whole of France cheered as he got better and, through these upheavals, Bébel kept his popularity, while his films continue to generate high ratings on French television reruns. 

Cinephiles the world over will remember the Belmondo of Godard, Melville, Truffaut et al, but in France Bébel is also the hero of French genre cinema in the decades when it was dominant at the national box office and the supreme reference in popular culture.

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