“I don’t know what they mean” was Jean-Paul Belmondo’s response to being touted as the face of the French New Wave after his turn in Godard’s BREATHLESS. Despite his confusion about this unexpected ascendancy to the top rank of the art-house star-system, Belmondo would go on to achieve worldwide fame among the smart set before realizing his true passion of becoming France’s most iconic action star, harrowing stunts and all.
A scrappy street-fighter from the outskirts of Paris, Belmondo grew into his no-bullshit persona quickly and casually, studying and mimicking his fellow denizens of the street and pool-hall. He went undefeated as a boxer for only a few matches before his mirror showed the physical toll it was taking on his face, and he turned his eyes to a new goal, performing.
And he was good at it too, spending time at a French conservatory for acting at the end of his teenage years and raising a fuss when he didn’t win the coveted Best Actor award at the end of the year.
But that didn’t stop Belmondo from finding fame. A chance meeting with writer-director-critic Jean-Luc Godard led to him acting in a short film of his at the end of the fifties. Godard was impressed and wanted to work with him again. And they did. Belmondo was cast across from Jean Seberg in BREATHLESS, the film that would become synonymous with the French New Wave and the shifting tides of how filmmakers could reconcile real life and the artifice of the movies in the shifting cultural landscape of post-war France.
While Belmondo flourished as the darling of critics and espresso-sipping aesthetes, his own personal interests were less highbrow. He was a fan of sports matches, detective novels, and Hollywood comedies. The French New Wave saw Belmondo as the face of philosophical debates and silent love affairs, he saw himself as a fun loving goofball.
When Jackie Chan was interviewed about the biggest influences on his style of kinetic, comedic action-adventure films, many are surprised to hear him invoke the name of Belmondo alongside Buster Keaton. Few Francophones are shocked by this, as Belmondo carved out a place for himself among the very great masters of physical comedy and action in his output of the 60’s, 70’s and ‘80s.
Roles like Adrien Dufourquet in THAT MAN FROM RIO were the most fun for him. Jumping from planes, fighting off bad guys, chasing or being chased, and protecting the damsel in distress were the kinds of things he found came easily to him, and he eventually made this kind of fast-paced, humorous action his stock in trade as an actor.
He was willing to go along with the likes of Godard, Truffaut, and Melville, on their artistic journeys, but it wasn’t about what Belmondo liked or wanted. Belmondo wanted to be himself, sometimes brooding, sometimes comic, always charming, and this kept the audiences coming through the cinema doors. It made him a household name in both art house cinema and mainstream media forever. Mondo Belmondo: The four film series celebrating the great actor and wildly popular action star Jean-Paul Belmondo kicks off at the AFS Cinema on July 6th.
As a special bonus enjoy this stunt from THE BURGLARS, probably Belmondo's most insane and death-defying stunt gag of all: