On the streets of Paris, car thief and fugitive cop killer Michel Poiccard has just been gunned down by the police, having shown an insolent, fatalistic attitude to the idea of getting caught, and indeed to the revelation that his American girlfriend Patricia, wannabe journalist and street vendor of the New York Herald Tribune, has ratted him out. She leans over Michel as he lies dying in a puddle of blood. Will Michel come up with some resonant last words? Not exactly. Defying agony from his bullet wounds, he just clownishly stretches his face into the two silly expressions he’d earlier used to explain the phrase “faire la tête”: a goofy silent scream, then a panto grin. Isn’t this what acting is, what life is: tragedy, comedy, faces, speeches? Who cares?
This unforgettably bizarre, throwaway gesture – the equal of “Here’s looking at you, kid” from Michel’s beloved Bogart – set the seal on Jean-Paul Belmondo’s sensational breakthrough in 1960 in Jean-Luc Godard’s equally legendary debut, À Bout de Souffle (AKA Breathless), from a treatment by François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, and co-starring Jean Seberg as the American mesmerised by his erotic, existential bravado.
Belmondo’s face was superbly handsome, rough-hewn, earthily sexy and real. He had a broken nose from his amateur boxing career and full, badly moulded lips, across which he had, in this movie, a habit of absent-mindedly drawing his thumb: a gesture at once meditative and provocative. Belmondo and Michel made each other movie icons. Michel is the rootless troubadour of crime, the car thief who shoots a cop because he happens to find a gun in the glove compartment. He drives from Marseilles to Paris to look up Patricia, hang around, get some money he’s owed – or maybe extort some he isn’t – have sex, talk and live in the moment. And yet, for all his lowlife credentials, he is capable of maintaining thoughtful, almost poetic pre- and post-coital conversations with Patricia in her seedy little room.
For Godard, in movies like Clueless and his later Pierrot le Fou, Belmondo was the archetypal gangster and tough guy, enriched with cerebral, thoughtful 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 opposite his longtime sparring partner Alain Delon – and often in larky, humorous entertainments. Belmondo was a French star to the bone: he showed no aptitude for or interest in learning English and making it in Hollywood like Charles Boyer or Maurice Chevalier.
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 cool, self-reliant outlaw who has made enough money to retire to an elegant townhouse that he has built in the country – but first he has a score to settle with the criminal fraternity. Because of his friendship with a cop, they suspect him of being a snitch: a doulos. In Melville’s Magnet of Doom (1964), based on a Georges Simenon novel, he is another Franco-Italian tough guy called Michel, an ex-paratrooper 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 ageing plutocrat on the run from the law who he begins to exploit. In 2001, a white-haired Belmondo played Ferchaux in the made-for-TV remake.
But my favourite Belmondo performance was one in which he was cast against type – and by Melville – in Léon Morin, Priest (1961). He plays a priest, doing so with absolute seriousness. It is set in wartime, and Emmanuelle Riva plays Barny, a young woman of communist leanings who goes to confession for no other reason than to indulge her anti-clericalism and bait her confessor: Belmondo. But the priest calmly engages her in conversation. He is deeply intelligent, reflective, confident in his faith. Naturally, and almost immediately, Barny falls immediately in love with him as they talk. With his untroubled frankness and openness, Léon asks Barny to call on him the next evening in his modest room so that they can continue the conversation. Their most important conversation centres on Barny asking how on earth Jesus, on the Cross, can have asked of God: “Why have you forsaken me?” Léon replies 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 falters – despite what you might expect from this kind of story. He is simply never tempted. His emotional unbending comes in the form of telling her about his troubled childhood, and a mother who hit him, and he is impeccably good-natured and unstuffy with Barny’s young daughter, playing with her like a jolly uncle. Naturally, these confidences only intensify Barny’s love and she begins to fantasise about taking him to her bed. But Léon rejects the pass she makes, with every appearance of being severely displeased and disappointed – and asks her to come to confession. Later, he comes into her bedroom to tend to her unwell daughter, and Barny sees in this event the workings of divine grace. It is a rather amazing performance from Belmondo, one that made me think he should have played Jesus. He played an intellectual in another film, Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women –the bespectacled communist who falls in love with Sophia Loren. But it wasn’t as moving as that extraordinary priest for Melville.
As the 60s became the 70s and the 80s, Belmondo was to make a return to the stage, but on screen was happy playing in unadventurous commercial crowdpleasers: action movies, thrillers, comedies. There was his jazz age mob adventure Borsalino (1970) directed by Jacques Deray, in which he played opposite Delon – a precursor of Newman and Redford in The Sting.
He was annoyed with the critics who would always be tutting at these lowbrow efforts. Having once been the male alpha muse to Godard, Melville and De Sica was an irritation to him. But he was to win a César for his performance in Claude Lelouch’s Itinerary of a Spoiled Child (1988), a mysterious, involved movie about a trapeze artist who abandons his career, fakes his own death, but then after a chance meeting with an old employee is moved to do something about the bad things he did in his old life. The eternally handsome, romantic Belmondo is an integral part of the history of French cinema, and France itself.