RIP Jean-Paul Belmondo: The Actor Who Went from the French New Wave to Action Superstardom

For quite a stretch, the late Jean-Paul Bel­mon­do was France’s biggest movie star. He also, in what now looks like the greater achieve­ment, stub­born­ly remained the most French of all movie stars. In France of the 1960s, an actor of Bel­mon­do’s gen­er­a­tion and lev­el of suc­cess would have been expect­ed to try mak­ing a go of it in Hol­ly­wood. And as he him­self admit­ted at the time, “every French­man dreams of mak­ing a West­ern.” But “Amer­i­ca has plen­ty of good actors. I’m not being false­ly mod­est, but why would they need me? I pre­fer a nation­al film to an inter­na­tion­al film.” When a cin­e­ma detach­es from its coun­try, “some­thing is lost. Look at what hap­pened to Italy when they went inter­na­tion­al.”

Though he nev­er did time as Hol­ly­wood’s token French­man, Bel­mon­do did appear in a few Ital­ian pic­tures (includ­ing the work of such mas­ters as Vit­to­rio De Sica and Mau­ro Bologni­ni) ear­ly in the 1960s, right after he shot to star­dom. His launch vehi­cle was, of course, Jean-Luc Godard­’s Breath­less, a har­bin­ger of La Nou­velle Vague and its exhil­a­rat­ing­ly delib­er­ate break­age of cin­e­ma’s rules.

Bel­mon­do would go on to make two more fea­tures with Godard: A Woman Is a Woman and Pier­rot le Fou, in both of which he starred along­side Anna Kari­na (anoth­er of the French New Wave icons we’ve lost in this decade). Oth­er auteurs also came call­ing: François Truf­faut, Alain Resnais, Jean-Pierre Melville.

Melville sits along­side Bel­mon­do in the 1962 inter­view clip above to dis­cuss their col­lab­o­ra­tion Le Dou­los, “a good old gang­ster film.” But Bel­mon­do’s pro­tag­o­nist, the tit­u­lar police informer, is hard­ly a con­ven­tion­al gang­ster. “He’s an ele­gant guy,” says the actor. “He’s ele­gant in every­thing he does, in his ges­tures and actions, despite appear­ances to the con­trary.” The same could be said of many of the char­ac­ters Bel­mon­do played through­out his career, even dur­ing his time as a Burt Reynolds-style action hero in the 1970s and 80s (dur­ing which, it must be not­ed, he did all his own stunts). We’re unlike­ly to see his like of nation­al super­star again — and cer­tain not to see anoth­er with such savoir-faire.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breath­less: How World War II Changed Cin­e­ma & Helped Cre­ate the French New Wave

How Anna Kari­na (RIP) Became the Mes­mer­iz­ing Face of the French New Wave

How Michel Legrand (RIP) Gave the French New Wave a Sound: Revis­it the Influ­en­tial Music He Com­posed for Jean-Luc Godard & Jacques Demy’s Films

How the French New Wave Changed Cin­e­ma: A Video Intro­duc­tion to the Films of Godard, Truf­faut & Their Fel­low Rule-Break­ers

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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