Jean-Paul Belmondo, a star of France’s New Wave cinema after his breakthrough performance in Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (Breathless) in 1959, died on Sunday. He was 88.
The death of a leading figure in French cinema was felt across the country. President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that France had lost a “national treasure”.
“It seems to me that all of France is sad,” Michel Godest, Belmondo’s friend and lawyer, told a television channel, breaking down in tears.
Godest said Belmondo passed away at home, adding: “He had been very tired for some time. He died peacefully.” With his devil-may-care charm, Belmondo was the poster boy of the New Wave, France’s James Dean and Humphrey Bogart rolled into one irresistible man.
With his boxer’s physique and broken nose, his restless insouciance chimed with the mould-breaking French cinema of the 1960s.
Director Jean-Luc Godard, the New Wave’s brilliant enfant terrible, cast Belmondo in his break-out role as a doomed thug who falls in love with the Jean Seberg’s pixie-like American in Paris in Breathless (1961).
The film floored critics and audiences worldwide and, with Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, changed the history of cinema.
Time magazine in 1964 declared Belmondo the face of modern France.
“The tricolour, a snifter of cognac, a flaring hem — these have been demoted to secondary symbols of France,” it said.
“The primary symbol is an image of a young man slouching in a cafe chair… he is Jean-Paul Belmondo — the natural son of the Existentialist conception, standing for everything and nothing at 738 mph.”
A boxer’s charm
Yet Belmondo was far from a suave intellectual and spent most of his career in he-man roles that played on his raw sex appeal.
Despite making his name as a charming gangster, the actor was brought up in the bourgeois Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, the son of a renowned sculptor, Paul Belmondo.
Born in 1933, he performed poorly at school during the war but was a talented boxer, winning three straight round-one knockouts in a brief amateur career.
He then trained at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art.
His first foray into cinema in 1957 in the forgettable comedy On Foot, On Horse and On Wheels, ended up on the cutting-room floor.
But undeterred Belmondo went on to work with some of the most talented directors of his generation, making a trio of films with Godard, and then with Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Louis Malle and Jean-Pierre Melville.
Truffaut described him as “the most complete European actor” of his generation.
The charmer was often cast opposite glamorous women, from Catherine Deneuve and Sophia Loren to Claudia Cardinale in the period romp Cartouche, and he constantly reworked his persona in diverse roles.
But from the 1970s he took on more bankable action movies in which he performed his own stunts.
Swashbuckling comic adventure films and farces such as Swords of Blood (1962) and the Oscar-nominated That Man from Rio (1964) introduced Belmondo to legions of new fans across the globe.
He enjoyed the mix of arthouse and more box office-friendly fare, saying: “It is like life. One day you laugh, the next you cry.”
Belmondo also briefly — and forgettably — ventured across the Atlantic for two English-language films, Is Paris Burning? in 1966 and the spoof James Bond Casino Royale a year later.
In the 1980s Belmondo experimented with more mature dramatic roles, earning a French Oscar, a Cesar, for Claude Lelouch’s Itinerary of a Spoiled Child in 1988 about a foundling raised in a circus. But he rejected the prize because the artist who sculpted the statuette, Cesar Baldaccini, had once disparaged the works of his father.