Jean-Paul Belmondo, the French actor who rose to international prominence in Jean-Luc Godard’s groundbreaking New Wave classic Breathless, has died at the age of 88. According to AFP, the actor’s lawyer confirmed the news.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Belmondo – nicknamed Bébel by French audiences – was one of the country’s biggest box-office stars, his battered face a stark contrast to rival and sometime collaborator Alain Delon’s chiselled features. Belmondo, like Delon, was a key figure in the period’s outstanding generation of European filmmaking, with the series of films he made with Godard – including A Woman Is a Woman and Pierrot le Fou – leaving an indelible mark.
Belmondo was born in the well-to-do Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1933, the son of “pied-noir” sculptor Paul Belmondo. He attended a string of elite private schools but performed poorly. He became more interested in sports as a teenager, and he had a brief amateur boxing career. After contracting tuberculosis, he became interested in acting and applied to the prestigious National Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he was accepted in 1952.
Belmondo began acting professionally after graduation, appearing in plays by Anouilh, Feydeau, and George Bernard Shaw. He also had a string of small film roles, one of which was in Marc Allegret’s 1958 comedy Un Drôle de Dimanche, where he was spotted by Godard, who was still a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma at the time. Godard cast him in Charlotte and Her Boyfriend, a 12-minute short billed as a “homage to Cocteau” that features Belmondo’s character ranting at his girlfriend in a hotel room. (Godard supplied the voice after Belmondo was conscripted into the army to serve in Algeria.)
Before Godard could make a feature, his fellow critic Claude Chabrol cast Belmondo as the murder victim’s boyfriend in his 1959 thriller A Double Tour (AKA Web of Passion). The character’s name, Laszlo Kovacs, would appear as a sly in-joke in Breathless. But it was Godard’s film, shot in late summer 1959, that cemented Belmondo’s place as the louche face of the French New Wave. Breathless was inspired by the real-life activities of serial killer Michel Portail and was based on a treatment by François Truffaut and Chabrol. Much has been written about the unconventional production of Breathless, with Godard writing new dialogue every day and shooting without lighting to allow for acting spontaneity; Belmondo responded brilliantly to Godard’s tactics, and the film became a significant commercial hit upon its release in 1960.
Belmondo also played more straightforward roles: in Classe Tous Risques, also released in 1960, he played a young gangster who assists an armed robber in fleeing to Paris with his children. However, the success of Breathless catapulted him into the spotlight, and he quickly became an international star, appearing in Peter Brook’s adaptation of Moderato Cantabile and opposite Sophia Loren in Italian director Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women.
But, like Delon, he preferred to focus on French cinema, extending his relationship with Godard with the fourth-wall-breaking A Woman Is a Woman in 1961 and developing another with Jean-Pierre Melville, a favourite of New Wave critics and who appeared in Breathless. In 1962, Belmondo played an ambiguous, sexy cleric in Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest, and in 1963, he played a robber suspected of being an informant in Melville’s Le Doulos.
Belmondo specialised in playing gangsters and low-lifes, but he had a big hit in 1962 with Cartouche, in which he played a raffish 18th-century swordsman opposite Claudia Cardinale. That Man from Rio, a spy spoof starring Françoise Dorléac, was another big hit from the same director, Philippe de Broca, and was more in line with Belmondo’s populist tastes; describing Moderato Cantabile as “very boring,” he told the New York Times in 1964: “I really prefer making adventure movies like Rio to the intellectual movies of Alain Resnais or Alain Robbe‐Grillet.”
After taking a year off from acting in 1967-8, Belmondo returned to the industry at a slower pace, starring in films for Truffaut (Mississippi Mermaid), Claude Lelouch (Love Is a Funny Thing), and Jacques Deray (Borsalino) – though he had a falling out with co-star Alain Delon overbilling in the latter. Following in the footsteps of Delon, Belmondo went behind the camera, producing films by Chabrol (Dr Popaul), De Broca (The Man from Acapulco), and, ironically, Renais, in the form of the 1930s-set political drama Stavisky.
Belmondo continued to have a string of popular hits in France into the mid-1980s, with comedies, action films, and crime dramas, but his output began to slow towards the end of the decade, and he returned to the stage, performing in Cyrano de Bergerac and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Kean. His most well-known film role in the 1990s was in François Lelouch’s adaptation of Les Misérables, and he reunited with Delon in 1998 in Une Chance Sur Deux, in which neither of them is sure which of them is Vanessa Paradis’ father.
He was hospitalised in 2001 after suffering a stroke, and he did not make another film until 2009’s A Man and His Dog, which did not hide the effects of his condition. In June of last year, he was seen in Paris attending the funeral of comedian and screenwriter Guy Bedos.
Three weeks ago, he was photographed smiling at a party to celebrate his 88th birthday with several of his children and grandchildren, including his 17-year-old daughter Stella.
Belmondo was married twice: once to fellow actor Élodie Constantin from 1952 to 1968, and once to dancer Natty Tardivel from 2002 to 2008. He also had a number of high-profile relationships, including those with Ursula Andress in the late 1960s, Laura Antonelli in the 1970s, with whom he co-starred in Dr Popaul, and nightclub owner Barbara Gandolfi, from whom he divorced in 2012.