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Jean-Paul Belmondo, 1933-2021

The physical Frenchman transcended his status as the early face of the French New Wave.
September 6, 2021
Jean-Paul Belmondo, 1933-2021

“After all, I’m a jerk.”

Those are the first words uttered by Jean-Paul Belmondo in the opening narration of Jean-Luc Godard’s groundbreaking and unofficial Bonjour Tristesse sequel, 1960’s À Bout de Souffle (Breathless). To be more precise, he utters, “Après tout, je suis un crétin,” which, while it may translate to “jerk” in English, has a more resonant impact in the original French. Belmondo, who had performed Shakespeare on stage but had only a fledgling movie career by 1959, was thrust upon the world of cinema as an unrepentant crétin. Playing a character so thoughtless, selfish, and reckless was surely a difficult enough hurdle to clear when starting one’s career, but doing it on the back of a film that would come to be acknowledged, more or less, as ground zero of an entire movement, the French New Wave, was surely a new level of “there’s no way you’re gonna top this, kid. Give up now.”

But Belmondo topped it, time and time again, throughout a movie career as extraordinary in abundance as it was in excellence.

Belmondo shouldered the weight of being the face of the French New Wave with casual ease. Godard clearly saw this resolve early on when casting Belmondo in his first short film, Charlotte and Her Boyfriend (1958), in which Godard himself had to overdub all of Belmondo’s dialogue because Belmondo was drafted into the Algerian army just as shooting wrapped. Of course, Godard could have simply reshot with a new actor; the 12-minute short is remarkably efficient in style and setting, taking place entirely in one room. But then Godard would have lost Belmondo’s physicality, that mix of brutal grace and masculine charm that defined him throughout his career. No, better to overdub him than lose him entirely.

There was only one Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Jean-Paul Belmondo was born in 1933 in a suburb of Paris but was a rugged man of the world from day one. Interested in boxing, he had a short career of Tyson-esque first round knockouts before turning his attention to acting. Enjoying success on the stage led to small parts in film and that led to Godard. In between Charlotte and Her Boyfriend and À Bout de Souffle, Belmondo made Web of Passion for Claude Chabrol in which he played a character named Lazlo Kovacs—a name his character in À Bout de Souffle, developed with help from Chabrol and Francois Truffaut, uses as an alias. By 1959, Belmondo was already deep into the heart of a self-referencing identity that would cement him as a star.

In 1961, he played alongside Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale in Two Women and The Lovemakers, respectively, then went back to Godard for his first film with Anna Karina, A Woman is a Woman. By now it was clear Belmondo was something of a movie miracle: He could do multiple languages and handle comedy, suspense, gritty realism, and romance with equal dexterity. And still, he surprised.

In 1965, he starred in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, again with Anna Karina, a film far more challenging than even À Bout de Souffle, and one that defies categorization. Playing a husband and father who deserts his wife to lead a bizarre existence of crime, international intrigue, and revolution with his former girlfriend (Karina), culminating in a man trying to blow out the fuse to dynamite he has strapped to his head himself, it somehow became a box-office hit. That “somehow” was Belmondo.

After the sixties, Belmondo transitioned into an action star with ease; if anyone today is impressed by the on-set stunt work of Tom Cruise, they should watch some of Belmondo’s work to see who led the way for Cruise to do what he does. In fact, just watch Belmondo tumble out of the back of a dump truck in 1971’s The Burglars, down at least 150 feet, with rocks tumbling alongside him, and marvel that he did not die that very day.

Right up into the 1980s, he kept performing his own stunts, including the car chase in 1981’s The Professional, another box office success as Belmondo’s tough guy image was now firmly established. He wasn’t making groundbreaking movies anymore, but he didn’t have to. He enjoyed playing tough guys in crime flicks and libidinous guys in comedies. When you’ve worked with Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol, shared the screen with Catherine Deneuve, Sophia Loren, and Anna Karina, and helped launch one of the most important movements in film history, you’ve earned the right to do what you want, when you want.

Greg Ferrara

Greg Ferrara writes about film for Turner Classic Movies.