Thursday, December 9

Jean-Paul Belmondo: the beaten icon that made crime sexy | Jean-Paul Belmondo

OROn the streets of Paris, the fugitive car thief and police murderer Michel Poiccard has just been shot and killed by the police, having shown an insolent and fatalistic attitude at the idea of ​​being caught and, indeed, at the revelation of that his American girlfriend Patricia, an aspiring journalist and street vendor for the New York Herald Tribune, has betrayed him. She bends over Michel as he lies dying in a pool of blood. Will Michel come up with some resounding last words? Not quite. Defying the agony of his gunshot wounds, he simply stretches his face like a clown in the two silly expressions he had used earlier to explain the phrase “Bad faced”: A silly, silent scream, then a panto smile. Isn’t this what acting is, what life is: tragedy, comedy, faces, speeches? Who cares?

This unforgettable, bizarre and disposable gesture, equal to Michel’s beloved Bogart’s “Here I’m Watching You, Boy” put the stamp on Jean-Paul Belmondo’s sensational breakthrough in 1960’s equally legendary Jean-Luc Godard debut, À Bout by Souffle (AKA Breathless), from a François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol treatment, and co-starring Jean Seberg as the American mesmerized by his erotic and existential bravado.

Belmondo’s face was gorgeously handsome, rough, earthly sexy, and real. His nose was broken from his amateur boxing career and his lips were full and poorly molded, on which he had, in this film, the habit of absentmindedly drawing his thumb: a gesture that was both meditative and provocative. Belmondo and Michel became movie icons. Michel is the uprooted crime troubadour, the car thief who shoots a policeman because he finds a gun in the glove compartment. He drives from Marseille to Paris to look for Patricia, hang around, get some money that he owes her, or maybe extort money from something he’s not, have sex, talk and live in the moment. And yet, despite all his criminal credentials, he is able to have thoughtful, almost poetic conversations before and after intercourse with Patricia in her seedy little room.

For Godard, in films like Clueless and his later Pierrot le Fou, Belmondo was the archetype of the gangster and the tough guy, enriched with the cerebral, reflective, and comic dimensions of self-awareness. He played variants of this role for the rest of his career: adventurer, mobster, sometimes a cop himself, often in front of his old sparring partner Alain Delon, and often in fun and funny entertainments. Belmondo was a French star to the bone: he showed no aptitude or interest in learning English and succeeding in Hollywood like Charles Boyer or Maurice Chevalier.

Fleeting romance… Pierrot le Fou.
Fleeting romance… with Anna Karina in Pierrot le Fou. Photograph: Courtesy of BFI

He played the criminal in some great movies by the other director who made him a legend, Jean-Pierre Melville. In Le Doulos, or The Stoolpigeon, in 1963, he is the quiet, self-sufficient outlaw who has made enough money to retire to an elegant house he has built in the country, but first has a bill to settle with the criminal. fraternity. Due to his friendship with a policeman, they suspect him to be a snitch: a doulos. In Melville’s Magnet of Doom (1964), based on a novel by Georges Simenon, he is another French-Italian tough guy named Michel, a former skydiver and boxer whose fight in the opening sequence was an influence on De Niro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. . He is hired as an assistant to Ferchaux, an aging plutocrat who runs away from the law and begins to explode. In 2001, white-haired Belmondo played Ferchaux in the made-for-television remake.

But my favorite Belmondo performance was one in which he was cast against the guy, and by Melville, in Léon Morin, Priest (1961). Play a priest, doing it with absolute seriousness. It is set in wartime, and Emmanuelle Riva plays Barny, a young woman with communist leanings who confesses for no other reason than to indulge her anticlericalism and fatten her confessor: Belmondo. But the priest calmly engages her in conversation. He is deeply intelligent, thoughtful, confident in his faith. Naturally, and almost immediately, Barny immediately falls in love with him as they talk. With his straightforward bluntness and frankness, Léon asks Barny to visit him the next night in his modest room so they can continue the conversation. Their most important conversation centers on Barny asking how the hell Jesus, on the Cross, could have asked God, “Why have you forsaken me?” Leon responds that, as an observant Jew, Jesus was quoting Psalm 22.

Of course, Barny begins to fall deeply in love with Léon, but his celibacy never wavers, despite what one might expect from these kinds of stories. You are simply never tempted. His emotional inflexibility comes in the way he tells him about his troubled childhood and a mother who beat him up, and he is impeccably kind and obnoxious to Barny’s little daughter, playing her like a perky uncle. Naturally, these confidences only intensify Barny’s love and she begins to fantasize about taking him into her bed. But Léon rejects the pass she makes, with all appearances of being very upset and disappointed, and asks her to confess. Later, he walks into his room to tend to his sick daughter, and Barny sees divine grace at work in this event. It’s quite an amazing performance from Belmondo, one that made me think he should have played Jesus. He played an intellectual in another film, Two Women by Vittorio De Sica, the bespectacled communist who falls in love with Sophia Loren. But he was not as moving as that extraordinary priest from Melville.

When the sixties turned into the seventies and eighties, Belmondo was going to return to the stage, but on the screen he was happy to perform without commercial adventures for the public: action films, suspense, comedies. There was his jazz-era mob adventure Borsalino (1970) directed by Jacques Deray, in which he starred alongside Delon, a forerunner of Newman and Redford on The Sting.

He was upset with the critics who would always be joking about these petty efforts. Having once been Godard’s male alpha muse, Melville and de Sica irritated him. But he was going to win a César for his performance in Claude Lelouch’s Itinerary of a Spoiled Child (1988), a mysterious and involved film about a trapeze artist who abandons his career, fakes his own death, but after a chance encounter with an old man. The employee is driven to do something about the bad things he did in his previous life. The eternally handsome and romantic Belmondo is an integral part of the history of French cinema and of France itself.

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