New Wave film icon Jean-Paul Belmondo dies aged 88

Jean-Paul Belmondo updates

Jean-Paul Belmondo, the French film actor who made his name in Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave of cinema and went on to become a beloved star of comedy and action films, has died at his home in Paris at the age of 88.

“He had been exhausted for some time,” his lawyer Michel Godest said in a statement on Monday. “He died peacefully.”

Over a career spanning 60 years and more than 80 films, Belmondo endeared himself to audiences as the quintessential Frenchman, a half-smoked cigarette dangling from his lower lip while he dispensed common-sense wisdom with a mischievous grin.

“If you don’t like the sea, if you don’t like the mountains, if you don’t like the city, well go screw yourself!” he explains as he drives along a country road in A Bout de Souffle (Breathless), the 1960 Jean-Luc Godard film for which he is best known.

“We could all see ourselves in him,” said President Emmanuel Macron in his tribute to the actor, calling him “a national treasure, with panache and gales of laughter, strong of speech and nimble in body, both a sublime hero and a familiar figure, brave in action and a magician with words”.

Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris in 1933, Belmondo was the son of a painter and a sculptor and went into acting as soon as he left school, where he had been known as a rowdy pupil who was more comfortable in the boxing ring or the football field than in the classroom. 

It was Breathless that confirmed his status as a star actor. As Financial Times film critic Nigel Andrews wrote last year in an assessment of the film 60 years on, the “baptismal classic of the French New Wave” still has a “smarting impact” and is “enduringly fresh”. 

“No need for pedigree actors or intricately historied characters,” wrote Andrews. “Just grab a new face on the block, with a boxer’s profile and a slapdash charm, named Jean-Paul Belmondo; team him with a on-the-rocks ingénue from Hollywood, Jean Seberg, fresh from critical catastrophe on Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan; and cast them as gangster and moll in a handheld, giddily plotless Paris.” 

The bulk of Belmondo’s career thereafter was in action and comedy films such as L’Homme de Rio (1964) and Le Magnifique (1973). 

It was typical of Belmondo, nicknamed Bébel, that he liked to do his own stunts. “If I did that, it’s because it was fun,” he once told Première film magazine. “If I hung from underneath helicopters, it’s because I have no fear of heights. Cinema gave me the chance to do things I would otherwise never have done.” 

Guillaume Evin, Belmondo’s biographer, told BFM TV on Monday that there were “two Belmondos — the one from the films d’auteur and the Jean-Paul Belmondo who connected with the public. His engine was his relationship with the spectators.” 

Tributes poured in on the news that Belmondo had died. “We didn’t think he was capable of that,” said former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. “Another wound for the nation.”

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