To some, he was Mr. Belmondo, to others he was simply "Bébel."
He embodied French cinema with brilliance, occupying a large part of it—that of comedy and adventure films—for half a century. With great relish and nonchalance. By giving the impression that it was easy for him, by masking all the hard work. A fast-moving and voracious career, he became the darling of directors such as Chabrol, De Broca, Sautet, Melville, Malle, Verneuil, Truffaut, Lelouch, Deray, Rappeneau, Resnais, and Oury, among others, and promptly in Italy, with Alberto Lattuada and Vittorio De Sica.
He couldn't put a foot wrong. It seemed that nothing could stop him, he was so powerful and fired up, teetering on the edge of rocky peaks—as in a famous scene from The Burglars by Henri Verneuil, where he takes all kinds of risks and amuses himself at "playing the actor": it worked a charm and kept audiences asking for more. As if taking his revenge many years after he was viewed in such a dim light at the Conservatoire National Supérieur d'Art Dramatique, where an obscure teacher was incapable of recognizing the burgeoning talent in him. A huge talent. And an eternal smile on his lips.
It was not until a thirty-year-old unshaven man wearing sunglasses kept bugging a filmmaker in front of the Drugstore in Saint-Germain-des-Prés that the director approached him and offered him a role: to play Michel Poiccard in Breathless, which introduced Belmondo, the great Belmondo, to the public. This unknown director was Jean-Luc Godard. It was in 1960, and Belmondo was twenty-seven. The legend goes that the actor himself didn't believe in the film, since it was written and shot outside the system—a film that did not respect any of the conventions and grammar of cinema. Breathless turned French cinema upside down. In fact, it shook up world cinema. The actor sauntered down the Champs-Elysées, wearing his hat and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, alongside Jean Seberg, a magnificent creature dressed in a t-shirt and short pants as she sold the New York Herald Tribune. Images of this scene traveled the world, with Jean-Paul Belmondo embodying something new, an idea of modernity, insolence, and insouciance. But he also expressed a form of contemporary melancholy in a crime film like no other. Everyone remembers the tragic demise of Michel Poiccard, betrayed by the one he loved and shot down by the cops in rue Campagne-Première. Despicable!
It cannot be stressed enough how his look and his acting style influenced American actors—there is a before and an after Breathless. The movie industry rushed to follow the lead, all the directors were asking for Belmondo. He brought with him an approach to acting, a way of running, of having fun that exuded freedom. With Godard, two more films followed: A Woman Is a Woman and the masterpiece Pierrot le Fou. With Melville: Léon Morin, Priest (where he excels), Doulos: The Finger Man, and Magnet of Doom. With Philippe de Broca, rambunctious comedies like Cartouche, That Man from Rio, Up to His Ears, and How to Destroy the Reputation of the Greatest Secret Agent.... With Truffaut, Mississippi Mermaid. With Resnais, Stavisky.... With Oury, Ace of Aces. With Malle, The Thief of Paris. With Rappeneau, The Married Couple of the Year Two / The Scoundrel. With Lelouch, A Man I Like / Love Is a Funny Thing, Itinerary of a Spoiled Child, Les Miserables. And so on and so forth... A packed career that, around the mid-1970s, turned almost exclusively to crime and adventure films, such as Le Guignolo, Body of My Enemy, and, of course, Le Marginal, leaving auteur cinema by the wayside. The actor had his reasons, and audiences continued to support him. But he never forgot where he came from, or what he owed to directors like Godard, Chabrol, and Melville, who saw the immense talent in him.
Today French cinema is orphaned, with a feeling of tremendous sorrow at the loss of a man that, throughout his career as an actor, radiated with his smile such a strong energy to millions of moviegoers across the globe.
Serge Toubiana, president of UniFrance