Obituary

Actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, the face of modern France, dies aged 88

Belmondo, one of France's most popular actors and personalities, photographed in 1973.
Belmondo, one of France's most popular actors and personalities, photographed in 1973. AFP - -

New Wave French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo has died at the age of 88, his lawyer announced Monday. Best known for the 1960 crime drama Breathless, France's most popular screen actor and heart-throb also had a successful career in theatre before a stroke in 2011 forced him into retirement.

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Jean-Paul Belmondo was the poster boy of the New Wave: France's James Dean and Humphrey Bogart rolled into one.

With his boxer's physique and broken nose, his restless insouciance fitted in with the mould-breaking French cinema of the 1960s.

Director Jean-Luc Godard, the New Wave's enfant terrible, cast Belmondo in his break-out role as a doomed thug who falls in love with the Jean Seberg's pixie-like American in Paris in "Breathless".

Heartbreaker: Belmondo in 1964 alongside US actress Jean Seberg
Heartbreaker: Belmondo in 1964 alongside US actress Jean Seberg AFP/File

The film was hailed by critics and audiences worldwide and, with Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows", changed the history of cinema.

In 1964 Time magazine declared Belmondo the face of modern France. 

"The Tricolour, a snifter of cognac, a flaring hem — these have been demoted to secondary symbols of France," it said.   

Among the many French fans paying tribute to him on social media on Monday, were the Paris firefighters' brigade.

"I've always thought that on the day I die, people will talk about me but then afterwards they'll move on," they wrote, quoting him in a Tweet. "Let's prove Mr Belmondo wrong," they wrote. 

'The most complete European actor'

Belmondo spent most of his career in he-man roles that played on his raw sex appeal.

Although he made a name as a charming gangster, he was brought up in the bourgeois Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, the son of a renowned sculptor, Paul Belmondo. 

Born in 1933, he performed poorly at school during the war but was a talented boxer, winning three straight round-one knockouts in a brief amateur career.

Belmondo, the boxer, honoured at La Mostra film festival.
Belmondo, the boxer, honoured at La Mostra film festival. (AP / JPP )

He then trained at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art.

His first foray into cinema in 1957 in the forgettable comedy "On Foot, On Horse and On Wheels", ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Undeterred, Belmondo went on to work with some of the most talented directors of his generation, making a trio of films with Godard, and then with François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Louis Malle and Jean-Pierre Melville.

Truffaut described him as "the most complete European actor" of his generation.

'You laugh, you cry'  

The charmer was often cast opposite glamorous women, from Catherine Deneuve and Sophia Loren to Claudia Cardinale in the period romp "Cartouche", and he constantly reworked his persona in diverse roles.

But from the 1970s he took on more bankable action movies in which he performed his own stunts.

Swashbuckling comic adventure films and farces such as "Swords of Blood" (1962) and the Oscar-nominated "That Man from Rio" (1964) introduced Belmondo to legions of new fans across the globe.

He enjoyed the mix of arthouse and more box office-friendly fare, saying, "It is like life. One day you laugh, the next you cry." 

Belmondo also briefly -- and forgettably -- ventured across the Atlantic for two English-language films, "Is Paris Burning?" in 1966 and the spoof James Bond "Casino Royale" in 2006.   

Cesar snub

In the 1980s Belmondo experimented with more mature dramatic roles, earning a Cesar (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for Claude Lelouch's "Itinerary of a Spoiled Child" in 1988 about a foundling raised in a circus.

He rejected the prize because the artist who sculpted the statuette, Cesar Baldaccini, had once disparaged the works of his father.

Twice married and twice divorced, he had four children including the racing driver, Paul Belmondo. His youngest child was born in 2003 when he was 70.

Belmondo suffered a stroke in 2001 while on holiday in Corsica, which affected his speech.

It effectively put an end to his career, though he did make one last movie as an old man whose only consolation was his dog.

In 2016 the Venice film festival awarded him a Golden Lion for a lifetime's achievement.

"I never think about my past," he told reporters there. "Forward, forward, forward."

 

(with AFP)

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