Jean-Paul Belmondo, the shaggy actor whose scornful eyes, boxer nose, sensual lips and cynical outlook made him the idolized personification of youthful alienation in the French New Wave, especially in his classic performance as an existential killer in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless”. ”, died Monday at his home in Paris, aged 88.
His lawyer, Michel Godest, confirmed the death in an interview on the French news channel BFM. No reason was given.
Like Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando and James Dean—three American actors he was often compared to—Mr. Belmondo established his reputation for playing tough, unsentimental, even antisocial characters who had drifted adrift from bourgeois society. Later, as one of France’s leading stars, he took on more crowd-pleasing roles, but without completely giving up his magnetic brashness.
Like Bogart, Mr. Belmondo’s whimsical features and a seething fury on screen, a realistic counterpoint to more classically handsome romantic stars. Like Dean, he became one of the most imitated pop culture figures of his time. And just like Mr. Brando he was often disdainful of pretentiousness and conceit among filmmakers.
“Since James Dean, no actor has inspired such an intense identification,” Eugene Archer wrote in NewsMadura in 1965. . Belmondo is a later manifestation of youthful rejection – and more disturbing. His withdrawal from a society his parents created is total. He accepts corruption with a cynical smile and doesn’t even bother to fight. He’s all out for himself, to get what he can, as long as he can. The Belmondo type is capable of anything.”
His starring role in “À bout de souffle”—released in the United States in 1961 as “Breathless”—was immediately recognized as trendsetting, and subsequent imitators only confirmed its importance. Mr. Belmondo’s mop, the way he peered at the world through a twisting web of cigarette smoke, and the way he obsessively massaged his thick, feminine lips with his thumb were so vivid and evocative that they quickly became global signposts of rebellion.
Mr. Belmondo was 28 and Mr. Godard was 26 when “Breathless” was made. The film was based on an idea by François Truffaut, another icon of the nouvelle vague, and started shooting in Paris without a script. Mr. Godard used a handheld camera – except in the street scenes, when he sometimes mounted the camera on a borrowed wheelchair – and let everyone improvise. The resulting film was rough and out of shape, but it had a sense of emotional honesty and truthfulness that made it electric. Many mainstream critics seemed unsure of what to think.
Bosley Crowther wrote in The Times: “It deals with its unappealing subject matter in an eccentric photographed style that sharply captures the nervous pace and emotional capriciousness of the story it tells. And via American actress Jean Seberg and a hypnotically ugly new young man named Jean-Paul Belmondo, it projects two downright terrifying characters.
Many critics found Mr. Belmondo’s amoral antihero a little too strong. But others found in the role a raw truthfulness and a thematic boldness that was at odds with most of what came out of the Hollywood studios.
Mr. Belmondo quickly followed up “Breathless” with a series of celebrated twists for other New Wave directors, and quickly became widely regarded as the movement’s leading interpreter—though in later years he told interviewers that he had some of the most intellectual ambitious efforts found to be boring.
When he starred as a steelworker opposite Jeanne Moreau in director Peter Brooks’s “Moderato Cantabile” (1960), he said Marguerite Duras’ script was too intellectual for his taste. He often expressed ambivalence for esoteric directors such as Mr. Brooks, Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni.
He played a Hungarian who entered into a romantic relationship with a Provençal family in Claude Chabrol’s “À double tour” (1959), was a young country priest in “Leon Morin, Priest” (1962) and helped co-star Sophia Loren win an Academy Award. in Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women” (1961).
However, in the mid-1960s, Mr. Belmondo became annoyed with playing the youthful antihero in movie after movie.
“A lot of times I was out with a girl and a kid would want to give me a bad time,” Mr. Belmondo told an interviewer. “I fought it with them. It’s the same now. Everyone wants to say he smashed Belmondo.”
A full obituary will be published shortly.