Cinema says goodbye to Jean-Paul Belmondo; discover the trajectory of the cult and popular idol

Born on April 6, 1933 in Neuilly sur Seine, Jean-Paul Belmondo left the scene today, aged 88. An immense shock to the public, especially the French, for which this sacred monster of cinema, nicknamed “Bébel”, had already become for decades at the same time an icon and a familiar figure. Known and loved by all, the actor has an incredibly rich and diverse filmography, with 67 titles, many of which are blockbusters in cinema, but also on television, where even his oldest films continue to be shown.

This immensely popular actor of action cinema, king of trickery and bullshit, started his career almost by chance with Jean-Luc Godard’s “Acossado”, which he revealed to movie lovers in 1959. The film was honored in Brazil at the Varilux French Film Festival 2020. Belmondo quickly became the icon of the Nouvelle Vague and strove to stay connected to this new cinematographic wave that arose in the 1960s, with other films by Godard (such as the cult “The devil of eleven hours”), and also Jean-Pierre Melville (“Léon Morin, the priest” and “The technique of a whistleblower”), Peter Brook (“Two souls in torment”), François Truffaut (“The Siren of the Mississippi”) or Alain Resnais (“Stavisky or the Empire of Alexander”).

But it was his friendship with the popular filmmaker Philippe de Broca, a cheerful fellow like himself, that would change his destiny as an actor and give birth to the figure of Bébel in the eyes of all France. He started with “Cartouche” (1962) and continued with five of his biggest blockbusters, including “The Man from the River”, “The Tribulations of a Chinese in China” and “The Magnificent”. It was with “O Homem do Rio”, in 1964, that his audacious and irreverent facet stood out, as an actor who was not afraid of anything and refused to be replaced in action scenes.

Jean-Paul Belmondo in "the man from the river" (1964).  Photo: Disclosure
Jean-Paul Belmondo in “O Homem do Rio” (1964). Photo: Disclosure

Bébel was born athletic. As a child, he was repeatedly expelled from the best schools his father, sculptor Paul Belmondo, enrolled him in. He only liked boxing and football… and then theater! But Belmondo wasn’t just an excellent stuntman: even the most demanding critic recognizes him as an exceptional actor. Comical, dramatic, cop or bandit, he demonstrated a unique ability to embody films in very different tones and registers. The great Nouvelle Vague actor liked his plurality. “I’m proud to be a popular star, I don’t disdain public approval,” he said.

In the following decade, Jean-Paul Belmondo began to systematically become “The Belmondo”. The French public went to the movies with their family to see “O Belmondo” of the year. This personalization took place mainly under the baton of another director who was decisive for his career, Georges Lautner, with whom he filmed “Strip or Thief”, “Le Guignolo” and “The Professional”, in the early 1980s.

The magnificent Jean-Paul Belmondo in Paris (1973).  Photo: AFP
The magnificent Jean-Paul Belmondo in Paris (1973). Photo: AFP

At the time, he was one of the few actors who could guarantee commercial success for a film with his name alone. The other was Alain Delon, his great friend and rival, with whom he would make some films, including Jacques Deray’s “Borsalino” (1970), a film that provoked a legendary lawsuit when Belmondo discovered that the name of Alain Delon – also producer of the film – appeared twice on the poster! Later, some sources revealed that the fight between these two sacred monsters had a purely publicity purpose…

It is with Claude Lelouch’s “Itinerário de um aventureiro” (1988), which earned him the César for Best Actor, that his successful career really comes to an end. A melancholy and symbolic film of the end of the trip, in which a businessman, tired of responsibilities, pretends to be dead during a cruise, and goes sailing, without a compass, across the seas.

In 2001, Belmondo suffered a stroke and struggled for 20 years to overcome the consequences of the disease. He died “from fatigue”, informed his family.

Belmondo’s provocative charm, known for his generosity and loyalty in friendships, will be missed by everyone. The Varilux Festival of French Film will honor him in November, showing in particular the film considered by critics as the most beautiful of his career: “A monkey in winter”, by Henri Verneuil, alongside another icon of French cinema, Jean Office And we will all toast to their reunion in seventh heaven.

Christian and Emmanuelle Boudier are creators and organizers of the French Film Festival Varilux.