Jean-Paul Belmondo – Actor, producer
Born April 9, 1933; died September 6, 2021
Jean-Paul Belmondo, who has died aged 88, was an actor who epitomised 1960s Gallic cool. Coming to prominence during the French nouvelle vague, Belmondo became a star after appearing opposite Jean Seberg in A bout de souffle (Breathless) (1960). With a restless gait, a broken nose, and a way of hanging a cigarette from his lips with a loucheness few could match, Belmondo became the golden boy of the new wave.
For intellectually inclined directors such as Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Pierre Melville and Louis Malle, he became their very own rebel without a cause, as they projected their desire for anti-establishment action upon him. While they theorised their European dissections of American genre flicks, for a while, at least, he embodied their counter-cultural ideal.
This was the case too for non-French directors, including Vittorio De Sica, who directed Belmondo alongside Sophia Loren in Two Women (1961). Peter Brook, meanwhile, cast Belmondo opposite Jeanne Moreau in his adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ Moderato Cantabile (1960). Belmondo, alas, described the result as “very boring”.
Belmondo may have become an arthouse matinee idol for the terminally chic set, but his comment about Brook’s film was indicative of other aspirations. His early films made him cool, but his tastes leaned towards more commercial and less demanding fare. Where he once glowered with a guileless mix of comic vulnerability and an underlying bad boy charm, once he graduated into the mainstream, he could play it for laughs or else be an action hero without irony.
This approach served him well across fifty-years that saw him produce many of his later films. He even did his own stunts in a devil-may-care approach that saw him seize every onscreen moment he appeared to be living. This gave the impression of a man having the time of his life while forever on the run.
Jean-Paul Charles Belmondo was born into wealth in Neuilly-sur-Seine, west of Paris, to sculptor Paul Belmondo and painter Sarah Rainaud-Richard. He was initially drawn to boxing, before going to a private drama school, where he developed his disdainful approach to authority in comic shows before enrolling in the Conservatoire of Dramatic Arts in Paris. A sketch mocking the school almost caused a riot.
Belmondo performed on stage before making his screen debut in a short film, Moliere (1956). More roles followed, including an appearance alongside Alain Delon in the comedy, Sois belle et tais-toi (Be Beautiful But Shut Up) (1958). Belmondo and Delon would become the yin and yang of male leads in French cinema.
Belmondo was cast in Godard’s short film, Charlotte and Her Boyfriend (1958), with Godard dubbing in his voice due to his star having departed to do his national service. Belmondo acted alongside Romy Schneider in German rom-com, An Angel on Wheels (1959), and appeared in Claude Chabrol’s thriller, Web of Passion (1959). He played D’Artangnan in a French TV production of The Three Musketeers the same year.
It was A bout de soufflé, however, that made Belmondo a star beyond France. He went on to work with Godard again, first in Une femme est une Femme (A Woman is a Woman) (1961), then in Pierrot le Fou (1965), both opposite Anna Karina.
While he starred in a conveyor belt of gangster flicks beyond the nouvelle vague, his first real signs of leaping into the mainstream came in That Man from Rio (1964). This voguish spy spoof saw Belmondo appear alongside Francoise Dorleac in what became one of the biggest box office successes in France.
Belmondo took a year out from acting in 1967, ducking out to live a little beyond his huge workload. He returned with crime movie, Ho! (1968), and scored a massive hit in Gerard Oury’s comedy, The Brain (1969), alongside David Niven and Eli Wallach. He also appeared opposite Catherine Deneuve for Francois Truffaut in Mississippi Mermaid (1969). The following year, Belmondo teamed up with Delon in gangster film, Borsalino (1970). With Delon producing, Belmondo sued his co-star over billing.
Inspired to start his own production company, Belmondo founded Cerito Films, named after his grandmother. With Cerito at the helm, Belmondo starred opposite Mia Farrow in black comedy, Dr Poppaul (1972), directed by Chabrol. He spent much of the decade in commercial fare, including crime thriller Fear Over the City (1975), and Animal (1977), playing a stuntman opposite Raquel Welch.
After more commercial films, in the late 1980s, Belmondo returned to the stage in Kean, adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ novel by Jean-Paul Sartre. He played the title role in Cyrano de Bergerac in Paris, and took the lead in Claude Lelouch’s film of Les Miserables (1995). Belmondo suffered a stroke in 2001, and didn’t appear on film again until 2008 in A Man and His Dog. It was his final role.
Throughout his lengthy career, any interest Belmondo might have had in Hollywood was fleeting. In France, however, while he eschewed the scene that made his name, he remained one of its figureheads, in an action packed life both on and off screen that embodied a generation for whom attitude was everything.
He is survived by his daughter, Florence, and his son Paul, to his first wife, Elodie Constantin; and his daughter Stella, to his second wife, Natty Tardival. His and Constantin’s eldest daughter, Patricia, predeceased him in 1993.
The Herald, September 10th 2021