The Paris Cinema Project

“Jean-Paul Belmondo…it appears, is the revelation of the new French cinema.” That was how Claude Elsen described the young actor in 1960, in a not very favorable review in the newspaper Rivarol of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de soufle (1960), one of the early films that helped make Belmondo an international superstar. Even this praise of the actor, however, seems more Elsen’s commentary on the state of French cinema at the time rather than any acknowledgement of Belmondo’s dynamic talent. Twice in the review, he likened the actor’s appearance to that of a spider monkey, and he claimed that the “physical contact” between his costar, the “ravishing” Jean Seberg, and the “ugly” Belmondo, was “extremely unappealing.” The decidedly anti-New Wave Elsen reported that a jury of critics had named Godard’s film the most overrated of the year. Elsen himself had been holding out for Alain Renais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959), or Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), or perhaps Jean Cocteau’s Le Testament d’Orphée (1960). Now that he had seen À bout de soufle, though, he admitted, “I’m beginning to wonder.” 

Elsen’s assessment of the young actor would place him decidedly in the minority, at the time and over the next sixty years.  Indeed, when Belmondo died last month, he had been one of the iconic stars of French cinema for at least that long, one of the great personalities whose career had begun in the 1950s, along with Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, and very, very few others. Tracing Belmondo’s initial impact can be difficult, because the materials are mostly unavailable, at least for the film historian working in the United States. But there are enough of them to begin to get a sense of the actor’s development, from a practically unknown stage performer with a much more famous father to a global symbol of French masculinity in just a few years.

Claude Elsen’s negative review of À bout de souffle…and Belmondo…in Rivarol, April 7, 1960

French newspapers first took notice of Belmondo in the summer of 1955, when he was awarded an acting prize at the National Conservatory, where he was a student. Within a year or two, he would receive occasional notices for his performances at the Athenée theatre in Paris. He appeared there in a 1957 staging of Shakespeare’s La Mégère approvoisée (The Taming of the Shrew), which featured two major stars as Petruchio and Catherine, Pierre Brasseur and Susanne Flon. Nevertheless, the reviewer took the time to praise “the leaping fun of Belmondo” in a supporting role. He also played a minor role at the Athenée in 1958, in a new play, Oscar, by actor-writer-director Claude Magnier, and the critic in L’Information mentioned him briefly, but approvingly, as “amusant.”

Belmondo’s father, the sculptor Paul Belmondo, would be mentioned far more often in the press at the time, in February, 1955, for instance, when his work appeared in an exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Paris, or a year later, when he won a 400,000-franc Grand Prix des Beaux-Arts from the city of Paris. After that, the relative fame of father and son shifted pretty quickly.

We tend to think of À bout de soufle as one of the great star turns in film history, making Belmondo an instant sensation. But in fact it was the film he made just before his work with Godard that forced the public—and critics—to take serious notice. That movie was À double tour, from 1959, directed by Claude Chabrol, the eighth feature film in which Belmondo had appeared in the last two years. Writing in Les Dépêches, a newspaper for the Burgundy region of France, René Quinson called this murder mystery, just Chabrol’s third film, “a festival of colors” (the director had only worked in black-and-white before), “and a subtle play on the detective genre.” Despite casting important stars in the lead roles—Jacques Dacqmine and Madeleine Robinson, who would win a Best Actress award at the Venice film festival for her performance in À double tour—“Chabrol remained faithful to the young actors whose talent he can sense with the same insight  as a veteran impresario.” As a result, he cast Belmondo, “a remarkably gifted young actor, for both drama and comedy, who has been waiting for a long time to find a director capable of exploiting his gifts.” Quinson concluded that, “He seems to have found him here.”  In this telling, it is Chabrol and not Godard who discovered Belmondo, and the director of À double tour and the young supporting actor who formed the duo that promised to give new life to French cinema.

Of course, À bout de soufle brought Belmondo to a new level of stardom, and the responses to the kind of Frenchness the actor embodied ranged from the fully popular to the philosophical. In 1962, the French writer Richard Caron published the very hard-boiled murder mystery, La fille de l’ombre. He described two toughs in the novel, the older one with “the build of a slightly thinner Jean Gabin,” and who could have been the father of his partner, a young man with “the relaxed look of a slightly taller and wider Jean-Paul Belmondo.” Caron’s book made literal what so many critics implied after À bout de soufle, that the great-but-aging star Gabin might now yield to Belmondo, as a father to a son, knowing that the younger man could better represent French masculinity to new generations of film audiences.

The cover of Richard Caron’s 1962 novel, La Fille de l’ombre, in which two gangsteres resemble Jean Gabin and Jean-Paul Belmondo

At the other end of the cultural spectrum from detective fiction, in late-1960, French playwright Gabriel Arout wrote an article for Air France Revue, the magazine of the airline Air France, about Dostoyevsky “and the sources of good and evil.” This sort of philosophical undertaking wasn’t at all unusual for the Revue, perhaps telling us something about French air travelers at the time, but in any event, Arout used Belmondo as a kind of touchstone for the modern reader of serious literature. He wrote that “the central character of À bout de souffle,” and here he meant Belmondo, “seems…part of the lineage of the characters in [Dostoyevsky’s] The Possessed,” but then went on to clarify the point. Actually, “it was easier to imagine that the character embodied by Belmondo…is more in line with the hero of [Camus’] The Stranger, than he is with Stavrogin” the main character in The Possessed.  

A little more than a year later, in January, 1962, French philosopher (and film theorist) Henri Agel weighed in about Belmondo in Étude, a monthly journal of literature, aesthetics, and culture. In “Three Faces of the Sacred,” Agel considered Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (1954), Luis Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959), and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, prêtre (1961). Agel marvelled at the psychological depth of Belmondo’s performance in the title role of Melville’s film, which underscored the religious dilemma in this drama of occupied France. “Jean-Paul Belmondo, the protagonist of À bout de soufle and ten other films of the New Wave, all of them centered on the contemporary adventurer, here is the very image of a character stripped down, virtually erased,” which, for Agel, produced “a rich and frank human quality, an indisputable interiority.” There is nothing here of Elsen’s “spider-monkey” in that review of À bout de souffle. Instead, Belmondo became the ideal actor of “the sacred,” the representative not so much of French masculinity as French spirituality.

Belmondo’s 1973 autobiography, which includes the dix commandements du belmondisme

Belmondo himself, or perhaps his ghostwriter, would make a joke about this kind of praise for his philosophical and religious significance just a few years later. In 1973, coinciding with his thirtieth birthday, he published his autobiography, Thirty Years and Twenty-Five Films (Trente ans et vingt-cinq films). As the cover indicated, the volume included the “ten commandments of Belmondoism” (dix commandements du belmondisme). Sadly for the contemporary reader, at least in terms of online archives, the cover is all that exists, and so we can’t know what any of these commandments may have been.

When Belmondo died, French president Emmanuel Macron eulogized the actor, saying that “we loved Belmondo because he was like us.” Perhaps. Sixty years before, just after the release of À bout de souffle, Madeleine Chapsal, writing an appreciation of the film in L’Express, said something similar, but saw in Belmondo not so much a French everyman, but rather a perfect embodiment of the new generation of postwar France. “It happens from time to time,” she wrote, “that an actor is born, destined by his temperament, by his looks, to embody an ideal image that the young people of his time have of themselves.” She ended by identifying in him the beginning of a new period in French culture. “Here is the dawn,” she wrote, “of the era of Belmondo.”

In Air France Revue, winter 1960-61, a young Moscow couple on the left, which the caption compares to Belmondo and Jean Seberg in À bout de soufle, and on the right, the two actors in a scene from the film