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The Big Picture: A tribute to Jean-Paul Belmondo

It's impossible to think of European cinema without Jean-Paul Belmondo

Jean-Paul Belmondo photographed by Gamma-Keystone (via Getty Images)

Jean-Paul Belmondo has breathed his last. Michel, the anti-hero he immortalised in 1959’s À Bout de Souffle, was a petty crook, a thief who could steal hearts and cars, yet also have sex and then discuss philosophy and smoke with abandon.

He rightly became the poster-boy for the French New Wave, the handsome, swollen face of Europe’s new cinema. An instinctive screen naturalism made him equally at home in thrillers and comedies, with a particular gift for making everything he touched look like a breeze.

Working with Jean-Luc Godard in A Woman Is a Woman (1961), he teamed up for the first time with actress Anna Karina in a loose tribute to the American musical, one that showcased his lithe physicality (Belmondo was a gifted footballer and a successful amateur boxer, his signature broken nose the legacy of a several bouts) but also his outsider sex appeal.

The trio would be electric again in Pierrot le Fou (1965), in which Belmondo plays a bored Paris TV executive who quits his family and drives off into the Mediterranean sunset with an ex-girlfriend while assassins and the police are on their tail.

He was brilliant in on-the-lam noirs, such as Le Doulos for Jean-Pierre Melville and, throughout the 60s and 70s, worked with the great names of Europe, from Louis Malle and his pal Alain Delon, to Vittoria de Sica in Italy, to David Niven, Gina Lollobrigida, Raquel Welch and Claudia Cardinale.

One of his best-loved films, certainly in France, which will be in a state of mourning similar to that inspired by Serge Gainsbourg’s death, was That Man in Rio, a 1964 spy spoof romp that became a national TV perennial, showed off his skills for action, his suave sex appeal and his attractively insouciant way with comedy – it’s a role that practically set the tone for a genre which still flourishes.

He was a bit Steve McQueen, a bit Roger Moore, with a touch of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, a dash of Buster Keaton and a slug of Bogart, but with an unshakeable French charm, often wreathed in smoke. He could wear the silliest clothes or be caught up in the most ridiculous farce, yet would always look handsome, never ruffled, those thick lips always looking for a kiss or hinting at a smile.

The movies just got less cool. It’s impossible to think of European cinema without him.

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