«I’m not very handsome» admits Michel Poiccard, the protagonist of Until the last breath; then he adds, enraged, “but I’m a great boxer”. In reality Jean-Paul Belmondo he was not a great boxer, even if he had practiced boxing as an amateur. He was not even very handsome, and yet he was one of the actors of his generation most loved by women, on screen and in life, to the point of earning the nickname of Bebel.
Jean-Paul Belmondo, the magnificent rascal of French cinema
07 April 2018
Contrary to what his likeable scoundrel face might suggest Belmondo, born in Neuilly-sur-Seine on 9 April 1933, did not at all draw his origins from proletarian France of the Popular Front: his father Paul was a renowned sculptor and the early years of Jean-Paul were those of a scion of the good bourgeoisie. Studies at the Conservatory, then his exuberant and exhibitionistic personality attracts him to the stage.
At the cinema he made his debut at 23 and for a while he had to settle for small parts, including the Lou di Sinners in blue jeans from Marcel Carné. In 1959 is Laszlo Kovacs, star of The double mandate from Claude chabrol, and gasconisce like D’Artagnan in a version of the Three Musketeers for French TV. The turning point comes with Jean-Luc Godard, which offers him 50,000 francs of the time for a short film to shoot in his room. As he has repeatedly said, at first Belmondo is wary of this strange guy who wanders around Saint-Germain des Prés in black glasses; he suspects that Godard’s intentions are about something else. But his wife encourages him: “At worst, you’ll punch him.” After the short, Charlotte and her Jules, Jean-Paul agrees to also interpret Godard’s first feature film, Until the last breath: but he is convinced that the film, shot against every rule in force in the sets of the time, will never come out.
Obviously he’s a bad prophet, because Until the last breath becomes the manifesto of the Nouvelle Vague and opens a new era of cinema. With great personal advantage of the protagonist, who from one day to the next sees a multiplication of job offers and turns out to be one of the most requested actors in Europe. In the early sixties he is often in Italy, where he plays one film after another (it’s Michele ne The ciociara from Vittorio De Sica, Amerigo no The road from Luigi Bolognini, the Livornese in Crazy sea from Renato Castellani) finding himself next to Sofia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Claudia Cardinale.
When you play forty films in ten years (in your entire career they will reach a hundred), you can’t go too far. The French star alternates auteur cinema with popular comedians, the story of adventures in costume with noir: the result is that he becomes the darling of two generally antithetical and irreducible audiences at the same time. Intellectuals love him for his collaborations with Godard (Woman is woman, The eleven o’clock bandit), con Jean-Pierre Melville (Léon Morin, ready), con François Truffaut (My drug is called Julie); the general public applauds him as an eighteenth-century bandit (Cartridge), gets excited and moved seeing him fight in the first (Week-end a Zuydcoote) and in the Second World War (the episode of the Parisian Resistance The longest day), laughs at his athletic antics in blockbuster comedies like The man from Rio O The brain.
The peak of popularity came, at the beginning of the new decade, with the part of François Capella in Borsalino by Jacques Deray, a modest but highly cunning film that smashes the box office by exploiting the unprecedented pairing between Belmondo and Alain Delon, for years acclaimed rivals of French cinema as well as protagonists of two itineraries in which many similarities could be counted. Disguised as gangsters in homage to retro fashion, Jean-Paul and Alain behave like friends, while counting the millions of francs that accompany their peak of popularity.
Since the system is successful, Bebel did not fail at the principle of alternation even in the 70s. The great success of simple anime films (How the reputation of the greatest secret agent in the world is destroyed, The spouses of the second year) does not prevent the actor from being requested by the most prestigious directors for films such as Stavisky the great crook by Alain Resnais o Trap for a wolf by Chabrol. By the second half of the decade, Jean-Paul tends to specialize in parts of a pain in the ass, where he is a “cascadeur” of himself (advertisements and interviews insist that he rejects the stand-in, lending himself to even the most reckless sequences); a forty-year-old fit and in perfect athletic shape, star of a series of action “polar” ones including The policeman of the criminal brigade e Policeman or scoundrel?.
If the quality of the films is a little tarnished, the popularity does not suffer any cracks: Belmondo is the protagonist of several television specials and, on the big screen, appears more than once (from You’re crazy Marcel a Players) in the part of himself. In the last few years he had returned to quality cinema, with lesser-known directors and yet with interesting results (Itinerary of a spoiled child, May be); even if the progress of age on the one hand, the changed conditions of world cinema on the other (in Jean Gabin’s time, someone like him would have remained a star even with white hair) had taken away much of his international visibility. The most beautiful satisfactions gave him the theater; on whose tables, triumphant in histrionics and vitality, he had performed as Cyrano de Bergerac or in the role of the legendary Fréderick Lemaître, protagonist of the nineteenth century Boulevard du Crime.
Just as he was playing the part of Lemaître at the Brest theater, in December 2001, he felt ill and had to leave the stage for the cardiology department of the hospital. At the time, a reporter asked him the fateful question whether it is better for a great actor to die on stage or in his own bed: “In my bed – he replied – to die on stage is an indelicacy! spoil the evening for the spectators ».