Belmondo later professed to be bored with his duties as leading man to Jeanne Moreau in the Marguerite Duras adaptation “Moderato Cantabile” (1960), and that was a signal to the French New Wave directors like Godard, Chabrol, and Francois Truffaut that their new male star was likely going to defect to more commercially oriented movies sooner rather than later. Yet Belmondo gives himself over to the solemn “Léon Morin, Priest” (1961) for Jean-Pierre Melville, putting himself into the long dialogue scenes with Emmanuelle Riva without any misgivings, and this was also a sign that his star power could be used for a serious film if you happened to catch his fancy.
He had the air of a guy who was quickly sick of any demands but also willing to show his best self if you really needed it. Philippe de Broca’s “That Man from Rio” (1964) was a big commercial hit for him, but he returned to work with Godard the following year in “Pierrot le Fou,” in which Belmondo played a man fed up with social lies and commercial exploitation who goes off to live with a girl (Anna Karina) in the spirit of just starting from scratch together. At one point in this movie, Belmondo does a loving imitation of the cantankerous French actor Michel Simon, the star of Jean Renoir’s “Boudu Saved from Drowning” (1932) and Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante” (1934), making a case for rude adventure rather than the malaise involved in settling down.
After a somewhat anguished crime film for Louis Malle called “Le Voleur” (1967), Belmondo took a year and a half off. This was at the height of his movie career, and he was regularly getting offers to work in America, but it feels like Belmondo knew his limitations, and he also knew that a large part of his appeal was in his being thought of as elusive, someone who could not be pinned down. When he returned, Belmondo allowed himself to be bedeviled by Catherine Deneuve in “Mississippi Mermaid” (1969) for Francois Truffaut, and then he did a gangster picture called “Borsalino” (1970) with his closest rival, the deadly beautiful and far colder Alain Delon.
In the 1970s, Belmondo concentrated almost exclusively on commercial adventure vehicles, and he had serious relationships with some of the most attractive women in the world, including Ursula Andress and Laura Antonelli. He was the producer as well as the star of “Stavisky” (1974) for Alain Resnais, a rare venture into something more refined in this period, and a signal that he might still be drawn to movies where the primary interest wasn’t just shooting off guns or jumping out of planes.
In 1987, he returned to the theater and played the actor Edmund Kean, and he also played Cyrano de Bergerac; both of these productions were filmed, and both of these efforts showed that there was a pleasing ham underneath Belmondo’s cool image. In the 1990s, he acted in a re-imagined version of “Les Miserables” for Claude Lelouch and played again opposite Alain Delon in “Une chance sur deux” (1998). His hair went white, and his lined face and gleaming smile showed that he had been happy to get a tan during all those years as a sought-after movie star.
Belmondo had a stroke in the early 2000s, and he did not appear again until one final vehicle called “A Man and His Dog” in 2009. Being in such ill health for the last 20 years or so of his life could not have been easy, but his image on screen in Godard’s “Breathless” is ever-fresh and youthfully alluring. No matter how badly his character behaves in this seminal movie, Belmondo cannot keep the kindness out of his eyes, or the hope for something better, and that quality should keep audiences sighing whenever they first see him as long as his great movies of the late 1950s and 1960s are shown.
By Belmondo’s own account, “Breathless” made him famous overnight. He was twenty-six when it was released, and its success took him by surprise. He had trained for a career in the theatre and never expected to remain in movies. But, with “Breathless,” Belmondo—for all his originality in acting and his distinctive personality—found himself thrust to the forefront of an artistic revolution, the French New Wave, a movement and a group with which he would forever be identified, even though he didn’t share its extreme artistic ambitions. In effect, he became an icon of a cinema to which he didn’t belong, and the gap between his place in the history books and his place in the industry was a defining trait of—and an unresolved crisis in—his career.
Godard, who first directed Belmondo in a short film, “Charlotte et son Jules,” in mid-1958, wrote a review later that year likening him to two of the greatest actors of the French cinema, calling him “the Michel Simon and the Jules Berry of tomorrow.” He promised Belmondo the lead in his first feature, but, when, the following year, he got the chance to make “Breathless,” he considered other actors (including the singer Charles Aznavour) before choosing Belmondo.
Godard, Belmondo, and the world got lucky. In “Breathless,” Belmondo plays Michel Poiccard, a small-time gangster who patterns his self-image on that of Humphrey Bogart, as Godard had styled his movie on classic American films noirs. What the real-life Belmondo has in common with Bogart is that he was no gangster, roughneck, or outsider: Belmondo’s parents jean paul belmondo were artists (his father a celebrated sculptor, with many official commissions), and Belmondo was trained at France’s leading theatre conservatory.
There he was the head of a pack of lively cutups—and also great actors, including Françoise Fabian and Bruno Cremer—who studied classic theatre by day and, by night, took their rowdy revels to the streets for antic varieties of improvised theatre. But his teachers didn’t take him seriously as a leading man. After receiving modest grades for a juried public performance (which the public acclaimed), he caused a scandal by giving his professors the finger; the low marks blocked the path to his great ambition, to become one of the honored members of France’s venerable national repertory company, the Comédie-Française.
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