Jean-Paul Belmondo: Passing of the People’s Movie Star, An Appreciation

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Jean-Paul Belmondo: Passing of the People’s Movie Star, An Appreciation
Film star Jean-Paul Belmondo has died at age 88. Even his advanced age doesn’t give a full sense of the impact of a career that lasted well over half a century. In the golden age of French cinema, from the 1960s through the 70s and into the 80s, there were a handful of male actors who captured the French public’s imagination. Yves Montand radiated intelligence and suffering integrity, and was a political activist (yet always remained faithful to his origins as a song-and-dance man). Alain Delon was feline, nearly androgynous, and in real life projected the image of a sybarite and world-class art collector. Gerard Depardieu embodied the unruly passions of post-68 France, and was a bon vivant, iconoclast and vintner. Jean-Paul Belmondo just wanted to be a movie star. He worked hard at it, and was happy to achieve it. Of Italian immigrant stock (like Montand), born and raised in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Belmondo famously was a boxer before he was an actor. He started his acting career before the New Wave, in the late ‘50s: he was featured in films by pre-Nouvelle Vague directors like Marcel Carné (Les Tricheurs) and Marc Allegret (Soit Belle et Tais-Toi). But it’s with the New Wave that Belmondo will forever be associated. Jean-Luc Godard cast him in A Bout de Souffle (Breathless), in which he played a petty criminal. Though he imitated a Bogey-type character and was in love with an American femme fatale (played by Jean Seberg) he was unmistakeably French. Paradoxically, the partial Americanizaton, as well as an intellectual side, is precisely what made him a new-style Frenchman. Breathless took the world by storm and changed the movies. (No Breathless would have meant no Bonnie and Clyde, which would have meant no New Hollywood) Belmondo filming That Man from Rio in 1963 (C) Unknown, Public Domain Belmondo starred in a second instant classic directed by Godard, Pierrot le Fou. There he played a man burning the existential candle at both ends, and finally blowing himself up. It might have been a symbol of Godard himself (and a whole cohort of artists, intellectuals and militants) who had a rage to live differently and thought they’d be dead by 30. Not unlike Bob Dylan, who thought the same thing, but went on to live 55 years (and counting) after his famous motorcycle accident, Godard would have a long, prolific career. But Belmondo didn’t really become his “fetish actor”, in the way Jean-Pierre Léaud did with François Truffaut (although Belmondo did make one more film with him, Une Femme Est Une Femme).
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Lead photo credit : Jean-Paul Belmondo (C) eystone/Hulton Archive, Public Domain

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Dimitri Keramitas was born and raised in Connecticut, USA, and was educated at the University of Hartford, Sorbonne, and the University of London, and holds degrees in literature and law. He has lived in Paris for years, and directs a training company and translation agency. In addition, he has worked as a film critic for both print and on-line publications, including Bonjour Paris and France Today. He is a contributing editor to Movies in American History. In addition he is an award-winning writer of fiction, whose stories have been published in many literary journals. He is the director of the creative writing program at WICE, a Paris-based organization. He is also a director at the Paris Alumni Network, an organization linking together several hundred professionals, and is the editor of its newletter. The father of two children, Dimitri not only enjoys Paris living but returning to the US regularly and traveling in Europe and elsewhere.