Jean-Paul Belmondo‘s final credits rolled today. The great French actor is gone at 88 years old.
”Charm is the ability to make others forget that you look as you do.”
Jean-Paul He was a Style Icon, an accomplished actor and producer, and, well, I like looking at photographs of him. I feel certain I am not the only one that finds the French star to be de si très séduisant .
Belmondo was France’s Humphrey Bogart, or even closer, Steve McQueen. When Americans think of him, if they think of him at all, it is for his performance in Jean-Luc Godard‘s Nouvelle Vague classic À Bout de Souffle (1960). The sexy and stylish Belmondo worked with the best French directors, including Louis Malle and François Truffaut. He was especially good when using his light comedic touch or working in action films where he routinely performed his own stunts. Yet, for some reason, he never really connected with the mainstream American audience.
Belmondo’s seemingly carefree chic and sensational style are no accident. Like McQueen, he had an innate sartorial talent that was way ahead of other actors, and he set the benchmark for classic French street style. In fact, he’s easily one of the most legendary Style Icons of our time.
Belmondo was a figure of style inspiration for young men in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s who refused to carry on dressing like their dads. His style legacy continues today with photographs of Belmondo from his Nouvelle Vague era apex still symbolic of a certain European casual attitude in dress and life.
His performances and his look in the Goddard classics À Bout de Souffle , Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961), represent much of what made the Nouvelle Vague so appealing: a ruffled nonchalance, great suits and a rebellious spirit. Belmondo clearly never gave a fuck what you might think of him and when this attitude is mixed with a flawless wardrobe you get an all-time great Style Icon.
Belmondo’s style: trim trousers, leather loafers, blazers and sport coats, sunglasses, a fedora, a boxer’s broken nose and an ever-present cigarette. The main thing however is the attitude and this is something that you either have or you don’t have. It is a look that is completely carefree while still being fashion conscious, a feeling of adventure that comes from looking like you didn’t try too hard. Belmondo represents a style that is perfectly imperfect.
Belmondo had an unwavering confidence that’s just shy of cocky. He is dashing in the simplest of clothes. He often wore a half-undone, ironed collared shirt, perfect for kick-starting a Vespa and driving off into a Parisian sunset.
He was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris. His father was a Sicilian sculptor and his mother a French painter, but in his youth, Belmondo seemed to be headed toward sports and not the arts. However, even with some success as a boxer, Belmondo ended up at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art in Paris.
After his graduation in 1956, Belmondo’s acting career properly began with performances at Theatre de’Atelier in Paris, including Jean Anouilh’s Medee.
He appears in small roles in films such as À Pied, à Cheval et en Voiture (1957), Sois Belle et Tais-Toi! (1958) and Les Tricheurs (1958). Those early roles showed the unconventionally handsome Belmondo had undeniable charisma and he caught the eye of Godard.
Belmondo was cast in the lead role in Godard’s first feature film, À Bout de Souffle, released as Breathless in the USA. Belmondo’s character kills a policeman and then hides out with his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg ) while plotting his escape. It is a landmark film that shot Belmondo and Godard to stardom, with Belmondo being compared to James Dean.
Belmondo avoided being typecast by taking uncharacteristic roles in Vittorio De Sica’s La Ciociara (1960) opposite Sophia Loren, playing a gentle character. I was first exposed to Belmondo’s smoldering screen persona in this film. It was titled Two Women in the USA. The film won the Academy Award for Loren, the first time an acting Oscar had been given for a non-English-speaking performance, although Loren made the English dubbing for her role herself.
Belmondo plays a young intellect hiding out with his family in the hills of Italy as the last days of World War II and the Nazi occupation. Loren can barely contain her attraction to him and they enjoy a passionate romp on a grassy hill only to be interrupted by Nazis, who assassinate him for his non-fascist agenda.
His role was small, but very memorable, especially for a young gay boy who dreamed of a man who is a sensitive, but masculine, an artist who looks like a hot middle-weight boxer in professor glasses. It was a powerful punch, I know it.
I was just 17 year -old when I saw it on a double bill with Never On Sunday (1960) with Melina Mercouri at a revival house in San Francisco. I was really high at the time, and when I got back to my friends place on Nob Hill, I had to take a long shower. In bed that night, I tossed around the idea that perhaps by the time I was an ancient 45-years-old famous actor, I would have moved to Italy and would be living in a haunted, 500-year old castle that is covered in bougainvillea.
At this castle there works a young man who taught himself to read and write and is very, very moody. He is always shirtless as he tends to the olive trees as I watch from the bedroom of the castle. He would look exactly like Belmondo, with glasses and has a gorgeous head of hair that is all mussy. On his breaks, he sits in a shady corner of the barn, breaking a loaf of bread and dipping it into olive oil as he drinks cheap red wine and reads Sartre. At day’s end, he cleans up in the outdoor shower, which happens to be within viewing distance from my kitchen, if I stand on a box and lean over to the left. He always has a cigarette resting on his bottom lip and smokes it without using his hands. Maybe he would need a light, or some soap; and I could venture on out there with a towel.
Back to reality: Films like the popular Cartouche (1962) and L’Homme de Rio (1964) gave Belmondo the chance to prove himself in more physical roles.
Besides Godard, Belmondo also worked with the other leader of the French New Wave, François Truffaut, appearing opposite Catherine Deneuve in La Sirène du Mississipi (1969). However, Belmondo began to focus more on the action films and comedies, even if he was a dramatic actor whose maturity was his strong suit.
There were Hollywood offers in the 1960s, but Belmondo turned them down. His possible scripts stacked up and he did not want to jeopardize his success in Europe by attempting to speak English.
He returned to performing on the stage in 1987, after a 26-year absence, in a production of Kean, adapted by Jean Paul Sartre from the novel by Alexander Dumas. Belmondo:
“I did theater for ten years before going into movies and every year I planned to go back. I returned before I became an old man.”
Kean was a hit, running for a year. In 1990, he played the title role in Cyrano de Bergerac in Paris, another highly successful production.
He worked in the theatre while continuing to appear occasionally in films. For his performance in Itinéraire d’un Enfant Gâté (1988), Belmondo received a César Award (France’s equivalent to the Academy Award).
In 2008, after recovering from a stroke he suffered in 2001, he returned to films in De Sica’s Un Homme et son Chien (2008). Instead of trying to work around his physical limitations, he played the character as having the same disabilities. The bittersweet story is about an old retiree who lives in a maid’s room in the house of his lover, a rich widow. He is forced out onto the street with his dog after the widow breaks off the relationship, as she decides to marry again. With no home or way to make money, the man and dog wander the streets of Paris.
Belmondo remains a cultural icon and the epitome of Gallic cool. His photographs still make my heart ache. Check out his performance in Stavisky (1974) directed by Alain Resnais, it is tres, tres bon.