Belmondo - death of an icon

Star of Breathless compared to a French James Dean

by Richard Mowe

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless
Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless Photo: Studiocanal
One of the “monstres sacrées” of French cinema Jean-Paul Belmondo has just died at the age of 88. His lawyer made the announcement in Paris today. His family revealed that he had passed away peacefully after complaining of being tired these last few days.

Jean-Paul Belmondo
Jean-Paul Belmondo Photo: UniFrance
Belmondo, who was born on 9 April, 1933, in the Paris suburb of Neuilly sur Seine initially was associated with the New Wave of French cinema in the 1960s with his role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless at the start of the decade, starring in Claude Sautet's Classe Tous Risques in the same year. He progressed to become one of the country’s biggest stars often alongside Alain Delon in such box office hits as Borsalino.

Known affectionately by his compatriots as Bébel, testimony to his status as a national treasure came with hours of TV tributes devoted him as well as front pages cleared to carry the news and pages of highlights from his career and life. The Deauville Film Festival mounted an impromptu tribute at a red carpet screening of the French film Her Way. The organisers recalled he had shot A Monkey In Winter in the area.

His father Paul Belmondo was a sculptor and his mother Madeleine Rainaud-Richard, a painter. At one stage it seemed as if the star might have a sporting future - he tried boxing and athletics before going to the Conservatoire of Dramatic Arts in Paris.

His unconventional looks and charisma attracted Godard for a part in Breathless and he was quickly labelled France’s answer to James Dean and he worked with other star directors, including Jean-Paul Melville on Le Doulos and Leon Morin Priest. He took chances in his choice of roles, starring memorably alongside Sophia Loren in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women. He was also catapulted to action man status in Philippe de Broca’s That Man From Rio. He also had a role in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale. He was a huge box office draw for more than two decades in the Seventies and Eighties.

The relationship with Godard continued in such titles as A Woman is a Woman and Pierrot le Fou. He received a César for his work on Claude Lelouch’s Itinerary Of A Spoilt Child and continued his work with Lelouch in and adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

He suffered a stroke in 2001 but managed to return to acting incorporating his physical limitations in the character in 2008’s One Man And His Dog. He was also known for doing his own stunts, as shown in the clip below from Henri Verneuil's The Burglars.

Special edition of the tabloid daily Le Parisien with tributes to Bébel The Magnificent.
Special edition of the tabloid daily Le Parisien with tributes to Bébel The Magnificent.
Generations of French actors have credited Belmondo with being an inspiration, among them Guillaume Canet, Gilles Lellouche, Antoine Duléry and Albert Dupontel. He was held in particular affection by actress Françoise Fabian who was the only woman in his year group at the Conservatoire in the 1950s and had known him since the age of 18. His “ ang" included Jean Rochefort, Jean-Pierre Marielle, and Claude Rich. Fabian who is close in age by one month, often referred to him as “my little brother.” She recalled the last time they had met at the Lumière Festival in Lyon. “He was able to recall everything … he had a phenomenal memory for names which I don’t have. I was delighted to have the chance to play alongside him in his last film [Un homme et son chien]. I am going to miss him so much.”

His long-time screen partner Alain Delon was overwrought at the news and was quoted as saying: “We should have gone together … after all we started together 60 years ago."

In 2017 he and his daughter Stella and son Paul accompanied their father to collect his honorary César at the 42nd Awards Ceremony. Belmondo was also the recipient of two Bafta nominations. He is survived by is survived by three children, Florence, Paul, and Stella Eva Angelina.

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