The actor Jean-Paul Belmondo is an artisan streetfighter, a modernist action hero, the quintessence of sixties France enriched with Algerian and Sicilian roots. The son of distinguishedpied noirsculptor Paul Belmondo, undefeated youth amateur boxer Jean-Paul threw in the towel when he realised the risk the sport posed to his face and took up acting instead. After early roles opposite a youngAlain DeloninBe Beautiful But Shut Upand as D’Artagnan in a TV adaptation ofThe Three Musketeers, Belmondo caught 1960 with a double jab as a gangster in Claude Sautet’sClasse Tous Risques, then as a silk-socks-and-tweed,Humphrey Bogart-obsessed fugitive in Jean-Luc Godard’s debut featureA bout de souffle(Breathless).
At the time Belmondo worriedA bout de soufflewas such a mess it would never be released, but the definitive film of thenouvelle vagueholds up shockingly well. Voted the eleventh best film of all time in 2012 by Sight & Sound’s latest Directors’ Poll, it remains a masterpiece of high-low culture and cine-literate verve: funny, nervy, reflexive, throwaway, voraciously referential, brutal and ultimately tragic. It minted a new poetics in cinema, a subversive spontaneity that shunned the studio system (Godard wrote the script for that day’s scenes each morning and never sought permission to film on the streets). Roger Ebert called it the most influential debut sinceCitizen Kane. Without it, there’d be noMean Streets, noPulp Fictionand far fewer jump-cuts in every visual genre from music videos to adverts.
"He earned the right to spar with France’s freshest auteurs and the most intoxicating actresses."
WhenA bout de soufflethrust Belmondo into the highest class of European arthouse, he earned the right to spar with France’s freshest auteurs and the most intoxicating actresses on the continent, including Jeanne Moreau inSeven Days… Seven Nights, an Oscar-winning Sophia Loren inTwo Womenand Claudia Cardinale inThe Lovemakers. Francois Truffaut wanted him forFahrenheit 451opposite Julie Christie. Crime doyen Jean-Pierre Melville could channel his handsome ambiguities into a priest (Leon Morin, Priest), a boxer-turned-bodyguard (Magnet of Doom) or a robber (Le Doulos), as Louis Malle did forThe Thief of Paris. In 1965, he reunited with Godard forPierrot le Fou, a nightmarish media-society precursor toBonnie and Clyde.The New York Timeslauded him as “the most impressive young French actor since the advent of the late Gérard Philipe”.
And yet, for all the highbrow hype, Belmondo himself was resolutely unpompous, his bedside reading moreTintinthan Robbe-Grillet. Reacting to the vast box-office triumph of spy-rompThat Man From Rio(1964), Belmondo (who performed all his own stunts) suggested the French intelligentsia were wary of a commercial hit: “Success in France is always looked down on, not by the public, but by intellectuals. If I'm nude in a film, that's fine for the intellectuals. But if I jump from a helicopter, they think it's terrible.”