Like many people, I fell in love with Jean-Paul Belmondo while watching BREATHLESS (1960) and I can still remember when he first won my affection. It happened during a lengthy scene between Belmondo and his beautiful costar Jean Seberg that takes place in a hotel room. After turning a poster into a makeshift telescope Seberg looks through it to see Belmondo starring back at her. He’s shirtless and a bit disheveled. A half-smoked cigarette rests between his fingers and his mouth appears to be on the verge of a smile. His eyes are penetrating, disarming and although Seberg’s character doesn’t say a word her silence speaks volumes. Belmondo has left her breathless and at that moment he captured a little piece of my heart forever.
Before he became an actor Belmondo developed a passion for boxing. And the actor’s crooked nose, heavy brow and thick-lips suggest that he’d prefer to be in a boxing ring instead of standing in front of a camera. He is dangerous but sympathetic and his imperfections are what make him so damn appealing. In films like BREATHLESS and LE DOULOS he can appear to be rather ruthless but the actor’s natural charm and good nature are always lingering at the surface. His boyish grin constantly threatens to give him away. It’s not surprising that Belmondo enjoyed taking funny roles in action films as he got older that showcased his physical prowess while allowing his comedic abilities to shine.
In BREATHLESS he plays a young criminal taking refuge in Paris following his thoughtless murder of a policeman. He treats women with careless disregard, is obsessed with death and seems hell-bent on his own destruction. Much like the film’s director (Jean-Luc Godard) and writer (Francois Truffaut), Belmondo’s character is fond of classic Hollywood crime films. He carries himself like a young Humphrey Bogart and mimics Bogie’s distinct gestures and tics. But every time Belmondo swipes his thumb across his lips he isn’t merely parodying Bogart. He’s announcing to the audience that he’s playing at being a tough guy. He’s performing without any camouflage. Belmondo’s subtle breaking of the fourth wall is the key to understanding Godard’s hugely influential and critically acclaimed Nouvelle Vague film.
BREATHLESS is a movie that celebrates the power of cinema while it deconstructs it, pays homage to it and finally disregards it for something bold, transgressive and new. It signaled a shift in how movies were seen and experienced. The actors, filmmakers and audience were now keenly aware of the historical significance of cinema. Movies were no longer just popular entertainment. They had become part of our culture, our heritage and our myth-making. They were the subject of intense critical debate and fan-fueled cults had started to develop around comedy teams such as The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges as well as popular performers including Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Bogart. Belmondo’s iconic performance in the film emphasizes the timeless appeal of cinema and helped usher in a significant change in the way movies were critiqued and appreciated.
On Friday, April 9th, Jean-Paul Belmondo will be celebrating his 78th birthday. The diverse films he has appeared in over the years such as BREATHLESS (1960), TWO WOMEN (1960), LEON MORIN, PREIST(1961), A WOMAN IS A WOMAN (1961), LE DOULOS (1962), CARTOUCHE (1962), THAT MAN FROM RIO (1964), PIERROT LE FOU (1965), MISSISSIPPI MERMAID (1969), BORSALINO (1970) and LE MAGNIFIQUE (1973) still seem so fresh and alive in my imagination that it’s difficult for me to admit their age. Belmondo may be 78 years old, but he will always be the charming bad boy of the French New Wave who won my affection with a look and the possibility of a smile.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies & published at TCM.com in 2011