Jean-Paul Belmondo, one of France's favourite actors, died in Paris on Monday at the age of 88. "All of us saw ourselves in him," said French president Emmanuel Macron, calling Belmondo "a national treasure".
Belmondo was known by the nickname Bébel, and also as "Le Magnifique", the French title of Philippe de Broca's film The Man from Acapulco, co-starring Jacqueline Bisset.
Belmondo's mother was a painter, his father an accomplished sculptor. He wanted to be an actor from childhood and managed to enter the conservatory at age 18. But with his looks – a trademark broken nose and huge, thick-lipped grin – he was no one's idea of handsome. "You'll never hold a woman in your arms because it just wouldn't be credible," his acting instructor Pierre Dux told him.
Yet over 60 years and in 80 films, Belmondo romanced the most beautiful women in cinema history, including Jean Moreau, who was considered his equivalent as a character actor.
He burst onto the scene in the 1950s, when everything seemed new. The second World War was over, the colonial era was ending and jazz and existentialism were all the rage. Film-makers including Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut, and Agnès Varda represented la nouvelle vague.
Godard was a little-known theatre critic when he spotted Belmondo and offered him the lead role in Breathless, a film without a screenplay and almost no budget. Belmondo's agent advised him not to take the part of Michel Poiccard, a careless petty criminal who kills a cop and seduces an American gamine and aspiring journalist played by Jean Seberg who sells the Herald Tribune on the Champs-Élysées. With the dark cynicism of the modern era, Seberg betrays Belmondo to the police. He ends up shot in the back, lying spread-eagled in a Paris street.
Breathless struck a chord with rebellious youth who were hungry for freedom. The film “gave birth to an icon and the renaissance of French cinema”, said a statement from the Élysée Palace.
Belmondo was natural, spontaneous and had “a strange, insolent energy” the Élysée said. “He spoke directly to viewers, looked them straight in the eyes through the camera, never hesitating to curse them.” Beneath his provocative manners lay “burning romanticism”.
Many famous actors become typecast but Belmondo played all manner of criminals and adventurers with equal ease. He was memorable as a priest, and as a poetic drunkard. And he was a huge box-office success. He acted in comedies, action and adventure films. He insisted on doing his own stunts, including jumping from one building to another, climbing rope ladders into helicopters and fighting on the roof of a moving train.
At the end of the 1980s he returned to his first love, the theatre, playing Cyrano de Bergerac among others. He lost the ability to speak following a stroke in 2001, but defied the doctor who said he would never speak again and expressed himself fluently within two years.