Unmissable star of French cinema until the 1990s, Jean-Paul Belmondo died Monday at the age of 88. From the New Wave to commercial films, “Bébel” has spanned almost half a century of French seventh art history. A look back at the career of a legend.
It was all at the same time. Magnificent, cheeky, animal, incorrigible, lonely, tender thug … Jean-Paul Belmondo, the ace of French cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, died on Monday, September 6, at the age of 88; at his Parisian home. With his disappearance, a page of French cinema is turning. A blackened page of the biggest names of the French seventh art: Bourvil, Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, Alain Delon, Bernard Blier, Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, Claudia Cardinale, Anna Karina alongside whom he played; Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges Lautner, Henri Verneuil, Alain Resnais, Philipe de Broca, Claude Sautet, Claude Lelouch with whom he toured.
“He had been very tired for some time. He passed away quietly,” said his lawyer, Mr.e Michel Godest.
“Itinerary of a spoiled child”
“Itinerary of a spoiled child”. We are grateful to Claude Lelouch for having been able to find the formula that best sums up the career of the actor. Born April 9, 1933 in the very wealthy Neuilly-sur-Seine, Jean-Paul Belmondo grew up in a family of artists. His father, Paul Belmondo, a renowned sculptor, and his mother, Sarah Rainaud-Richard, artist-painter, however struggled to interest their son in matters of art. As for the studies… The young man in fact has eyes only for sport, boxing in particular which he practices assiduously. Sent at the age of 16 to Auvergne to cure a pulmonary infection, he decided to devote himself to the theater.
After four years spent at the Conservatory alongside, among others, Jean Rochefort, Jean-Pierre Marielle and Bruno Cremer, Jean-Paul Belmondo began a career on the boards. Then begins to get small roles in the cinema. Jean-Luc Godard spots him and shoots him in a short film before offering him his first major role, that of the thug Michel Poiccard in “Breathless”. The film is a critical and public success. It is the consecration.
From the New Wave to adventure films
Jean-Paul Belmondo then followed the roles on the big screen. Nouvelle Vague (Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol), Italian cinema (Vittorio De Sica), thriller (Jean-Pierre Melville) or adventure films (Philipe de Broca)… the actor adapts to all genres. Figurehead of this new generation of handsome comedians – status that he disputes with Alain Delon -, the actor will then rub shoulders with the old guard. In 1962, the director Henri Verneuil hired his services to face the legend Jean Gabin in “A monkey in winter”, a cult adaptation of a novel by Antoine Blondin. Seven years later, it is alongside Bourvil that he plays a small-time brigand in what will remain as his biggest box-office success, “Le Cerveau” by Gérard Oury (more than 5.5 million entries).
For years, Jean-Paul Belmondo alternated popular films and author’s works. Even if it means confusing the general public. Thus in 1969, the spectators accustomed to his roles of young first a little rogue sulk “The Siren of Mississippi”, drama of François Truffaut in which he plays a husband mistreated by his wife (Catherine Deneuve).
But it is with the “failure” of “Stavisky” that the career of the actor will take a turn. Disappointed by the very cold reception given to Alain Resnais’ film at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, Jean-Paul Belmondo devoted himself to major entertainment, which provided theater tickets.
“Bébel”, the stunt actor
With “Peur sur la ville” by Henri Verneuil, the actor inaugurates a new era: that of the actor-stuntman playing the roles of cops or intrepid thugs and daredevils. During this “tac-tac badaboum” period, Jean-Paul Belmondo reigns supreme over French cinema. Aware that her name alone on a poster can attract millions of spectators, producers and directors write her roles to suit her. “Bébel”, as it is called then, accumulates the title roles in films mixing comedy and action. It is in turn “L’Alpagueur”, “L’As des as”, “Le Professionnel”, “Le Marginal”, “Le Guignolo” … The public follows but the critics quickly tire of these packaged commercial products on the same canvas.
After being injured while performing a stunt on the set of “Hold-Up”, Belmondo gradually abandons film sets for theaters where he plays mythical characters from the French repertoire, such as Cyrano de Bergerac in whose costume he will go to international tour. In 1988, while celebrating his 30-year career, Jean-Paul Belmondo received the César for best actor for his role in “Itinerary of a spoiled child”.
“Here is the king!”
His rare appearances at the cinema hardly drain the crowds any more. Even “A chance in two” which, 28 years after “Borsalino”, seal its reunion with Alain Delon struggles to find its audience. From the 2000s, his health problems gradually took him away from his acting profession.
Regularly, however, he finds the scene. Not to play there but to be honored. As in 2011 at the Cannes Festival where he was awarded a Palme d’honneur. Or in 2013 at the Lumière Festival in Lyon where some 4,500 people acclaim him during a tribute ceremony. In the audience is a certain Quentin Tarantino. “Belmondo, it’s not just the name of a movie star, it’s not just the name of a man, it’s a verb, which represents vitality, charisma, a force of Spirit. This represents ‘supercoolitude’. This is what Belmondo means! Here is the king! “, Enthused the American director. The king is gone but his legend will remain alive. Belmondo can be combined in the future.