When Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) opened in the States nearly a year after becoming a smash hit in France, the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther announced the arrival of “a hypnotically ugly new young man by the name of Jean-Paul Belmondo.” Decades later, the NYT’s Manohla Dargis revisited a 1961 film in which Belmondo took on the title role, Léon Morin, Priest. Dargis noted that the befrocked actor “looks like a typical Jean-Pierre Melville tough, at least from the chin up. There are the darting eyes, at once crystalline and unreadable, and the pillowy mouth that alternately seduces and punishes. Most of all there is that nose, a great squashed appendage that sits on the actor’s long face like a threat and a dare, and on which you can almost see the traces of violently thrown balls and fists.”
Belmondo, who has passed away at the age of eighty-eight, did, in fact, start out as an amateur boxer. When he was sixteen, he won three straight first-round knockout victories—and then quit after just one year. “I stopped when the face I saw in the mirror began to change,” he told the NYT’s P. E. Schneider. But in 1964, he admitted to a reporter for Time that his nose had been broken not in the ring but in a schoolyard brawl. “Out of the Left Bank by the New Wave,” wrote the reporter in ’60s-era Timese, “he is Jean-Paul Belmondo—the natural son of the Existentialist conception, standing for everything and nothing at 738 m.p.h.”
Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the upscale commune just west of Paris, and raised by Italian parents—his father, Paul Belmondo, was a sculptor whose works can be seen in the Tuileries Garden and on the facade of the Paris Opera—Belmondo studied at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts and landed roles in several features before Breathless made him a star. In Marc Allégret’s Be Beautiful But Shut Up (1958), he appeared for the first time alongside his friend and occasional rival, Alain Delon. Marcel Carné directed Belmondo in Young Sinners (1958), and in 1959, Belmondo worked with Claude Chabrol on Web of Passion and with Godard for the first time on the short film Charlotte and Her Boyfriend.
In Breathless, Belmondo plays Michel Poiccard, “an impudent, arrogant, sharp-witted, and alarmingly amoral hood,” as Bosley Crowther described him. He steals a car in Marseille, shoots the policeman chasing him, and rolls into Paris to hook up with his American girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg). “Belmondo gave to his character an engaging, if despicable, insouciance that resonated with Godard’s unapologetic way of making the film,” wrote Dudley Andrew in the essay accompanying our 2007 release. “Subject and style amplified each other. Belmondo provided calculated gestures—the thumb on the lips, the grimaces—and impulsive acts, such as shooting the cop or jumping out of a cab so he can win a sexist point by flipping the skirt of an unsuspecting pedestrian. He flips Seberg’s skirt too, just to provoke a reaction, enjoying her slap on his face. To these correspond the nervous jump cuts with which Godard gooses many of the film’s sequences, startling the audience each time.”
A few weeks after Breathless opened to sold-out houses, Belmondo appeared as the right-hand man to Lino Ventura’s underworld boss in Claude Sautet’s Classe tous risques. Writing in 2008, the late Bertrand Tavernier almost seemed to resent the fact that “all the credit for bringing out the talent of Jean-Paul Belmondo went to Godard, despite the fact that in Classe tous risques, Belmondo shows us a completely different side of his great gift as an actor, his remarkable versatility, by making credible an authoritarian character with radiant charm, by stunningly fusing virility and childlike innocence, in a performance that is in a totally different register from the one he gives in Breathless. I’ve never gotten over the way he turns to Sandra Milo, after having knocked out the man who was beating her, smiles that unforgettably disarming smile, and says, ‘The one good thing about me is my left.’”
Belmondo made two more features with Godard, costarring with Anna Karina in both A Woman Is a Woman (1961) and Pierrot le fou (1965). He also made three with Melville, Magnet of Doom (1963), Le doulos (1962), and, of course, Léon Morin, Priest. “Belmondo’s droll, pummeled-looking gorgeousness and catlike athletic prowess (evident even in liturgical frock), combined with a vow of chastity, make him one of the most alluring priests in cinema, rivaled only by Montgomery Clift in I Confess (1953),” wrote Gary Indiana in 2011. “It’s hard to imagine this film without Belmondo, since its central drama depicts a ‘spiritual crisis’ more or less hopelessly entangled with the strong draw of Morin’s physicality . . . Belmondo brings wonderful things to Léon Morin—a lovely economy of gesture and movement, an aura of inner calm and occasional air of childlike curiosity, and . . . that face.”
The director that Belmondo seems to have had the most fun working with was Philippe de Broca. They made six features together, including That Man from Rio (1964), “an over-the-top spy thriller that played like a parody of James Bond,” as Rick Lyman describes it in the NYT. “Audiences loved it, and they loved Mr. Belmondo in it. More important, Mr. Belmondo loved doing it. Although some critics who revered the more difficult work of the French New Wave derided Mr. Belmondo as a sell out, he told interviewers that this film remained his favorite.” Belmondo “brought a touch of comedy to his action roles and a hint of danger to his comic roles.”
He also famously performed his own stunts. When That Man from Rio opened in the States, Joseph Barry spoke with “Minouche the script girl” for the NYT. “Look,” she said, “see the car running over him in this photo? That’s Jean‐Paul himself. He never uses a double. In Brasilia, he hung from a skyscraper. In the jungle, he played Tarzan until his hands were bleeding. He is ‘trés courageux’ and has no airs. He’s one of us.” When Barry asked Belmondo if he’d considered starring in an American movie, the actor told him, sure, but not as “le French boy,” a Gallic version of the actors to whom he was so often compared: James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, and Marlon Brando. “You see,” Belmondo told Barry, “I like Cary Grant.”
Belmondo ended up sticking with European directors, and the roster is daunting: Peter Brook (Seven Days . . . Seven Nights, 1960, with Jeanne Moreau), Alberto Lattuada (Letters by a Novice, 1960), Vittorio De Sica (Two Women, 1960, with Sophia Loren), Henri Verneuil (A Monkey in Winter, 1962, with Jean Gabin), Marcel Ophuls (Banana Peel, 1963, again with Moreau), Jacques Deray (Crime on a Summer Morning, 1965, with Geraldine Chaplin), René Clément (Is Paris Burning?, 1966), Louis Malle (The Thief of Paris, 1967, with Geneviève Bujold), François Truffaut (Mississippi Mermaid, 1969, with Catherine Deneuve), and Claude Lelouch (Love Is a Funny Thing, 1969)—and that’s just the 1960s, a decade in which he appeared in forty-one films.
In the ’70s, Belmondo made “just” sixteen films, including Alain Resnais’s Stavisky (1974), which he also produced. In the ’80s, the number dwindled to nine, and then in the ’90s, down to six. Vacationing in Corsica in 2001, Belmondo suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body and left him unable to speak for six months. Seven years later, he returned to the screen one last time in Francis Huster’s A Man and His Dog, which was loosely based on De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952). Ahead of the U.S. release, Elaine Sciolino met Belmondo in Paris and noted in the NYT that when the then-seventy-five-year-old actor “with the blue-green eyes and broken nose smiles, he evokes the image of the charming gangster and cocky seducer he played in films decades ago.”
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.