‘Breathless’ made him a revered cinema icon for decades
“To be immortal…and then die.” That’s the answer Parvulesco, the writer played in a cameo by legendary French director Jean-Pierre Melville, offers to Patricia (Jean Seberg) in Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal 1960 French New Wave classic Breathless. That film also launched the international stardom of actor Jean-Paul Belmondo—and if anyone fulfilled Parvulesco’s stated ambition, it was Belmondo.
On Monday, September 6, Belmondo finally left us at the age of 88. His lawyer, Michel Godest, confirmed the death; he did not confirm a cause, though Belmondo had been in failing health since a stroke in 2001 laid him low professionally.
Even now, watching Breathless more than 60 years on, one can easily grasp the qualities Belmondo exuded that attracted a whole generation of moviegoers. As Michel Poiccard, a small-time criminal who commits murder and tries to flee the authorities with the aforementioned Patricia in tow, Belmondo embodied both an effortless cool and a youthful vulnerability, the craggy features of his face and his tough-guy demeanor belying a fundamental innocence that ultimately gets him killed. Combine that with a director who playfully explored the limits of classic Hollywood genres in reflecting reality, and it’s little wonder that Belmondo became a revered icon for a new generation of filmgoers, on par with Marlon Brando and James Dean in their own ways.
Perhaps his own working-class upbringing helped bring that quality that led viewers to identify with him. Born in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine on April 9, 1933, before moving to the Left Bank as a boy, Belmondo showed more of an interest in boxing and soccer than in academics growing up, and ultimately dropped out of school. Boxing, in fact, became his first professional pursuit; he made his amateur debut at the age of 16 in 1949 and went undefeated through his brief career before giving it up to pursue acting.
In the wake of his success with Breathless in the 1960s, Belmondo continued to work with other legendary directors like Jean-Pierre Melville (Léon Morin, Priest, Le Doulos), Vittorio De Sica (acting opposite Sophia Loren in Two Women), François Truffaut (Mississippi Mermaid), and Godard again (A Woman Is a Woman, Pierrot le fou). But both the athletic and performative sides of his professional life would merge after the worldwide success of That Man From Rio, Philippe de Broca’s 1964 action comedy in which Belmondo played an airman forced into globe-trotting James Bond-style action when people kidnap his fiancée, seeking an Amazonian artifact her late professor father discovered.
With the noteworthy exception of Stavisky…, a biopic he made with Alain Resnais in 1974, Belmondo devoted most of his career in the ’70s and ’80s to such popular entertainments, always projecting an amused self-awareness even as he wasin The Burglars (1971) or in Fear Over the City (1975). These days, Tom Cruise gets attention for doing most of his own stunts in the Mission: Impossible films, but Belmondo was similarly celebrated back in his day for his willingness to put himself on the line physically. Only an injury he sustained during the shoot for the 1985 film Hold-Up (a crime comedy co-starring a young Kim Cattrall that Bill Murray would later remake as Quick Change) finally put an end to such feats of onscreen derring-do.
And yet, seeing Belmondo again in some of his 1960s performances, you remember his wide range as a performer, not just the public image he put across. For the two aforementioned Melville films, for instance, Belmondo was persuasive both as a mysterious eponymous priest to whom Emmanuelle Riva finds herself unaccountably drawn in Léon Morin, Priest (Belmondo, in essence, predated Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest in Fleabag by about five decades); and as one of Melville’s patented laconic, taciturn criminals in Le Doulos. In the late 1980s, Belmondo would return to the stage, with a sold-out run as Cyrano de Bergerac in 1990 garnering particular acclaim.
Belmondo was indeed the whole package. But with Breathless, he will remain immortal.