Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Vale Jean-Paul Belmondo - John Baxter remembers the great French actor


Jean-Paul BelmondoÀ Bout de Souffle

            On Boulevard St Michel, on the edge of Montparnasse, a portion of the sidewalk has been marked as the point where Jean-Paul Belmondo snarled his last in his first major role in Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle. (As with most such monuments, those in charge got it slightly wrong; he really bought it in the middle of nearby rue Campagne Premier.)

            Bebel, as locals knew him, was always first and best a Parisian. One ran into him occasionally around town, often in ironic juxtaposition to his tough-guy image. Once, it was as he emerged from the très snob Brasserie Lipp. Each hand cradled a tiny Yorkshire terrier, topknots pink-ribboned, the property of his glamorous nana who swept past us both as the maître d’ held the door.  Belmondo accorded me one of those guy-to-guy raised-eyebrows looks. Women, eh?

            When a giant cutout of him appeared on the façade of a Champs-Elysées cinema, legs wide apart, pistol levelled, snarl on his face, an enterprising tagger climbed up and glued to his chest the pink triangle used by the Nazis to signify a homosexual. It was a good joke, since no actor more aggressively defended his macho image. His insistence in doing so undermined his potential, committing him to such lightweight stunt adventures as Cartouche, That Man From Rio and its sequels.

Claudia Cardinale, Belmondo, Cartouche

            That tough guy pose was synthetic, since, like Godard, he came from the upper middle class. His father was a famous sculptor, and he grew up privileged in Paris’s most exclusive suburb, Neuilly sur Seine.  He trained at the school that graduated Brasseur, Fresnay and Boyer, and played in Feydeau, Racine and Shaw before drifting into movies, where he learned that his face and off-hand way with dialogue could be his fortune.

            Godard used that image subversively in Pierrot le Fou and their other films togetherAs in Alphaville, which depended on Eddie Constantine giving his stockLemmy Caution characterisation, he relied on Belmondo being Belmondo. The actor was fine with that.  “I really prefer making adventure movies like Rio,” he said, “to the intellectual movies of Alain Resnais or Alain RobbeGrillet.” 

Early in his career, Jean Gabin, his hero, and predecessor as the most Parisian of actors, told Belmondo “You are me at twenty.”  Like Gabin, he never learned English; went out his way, in fact, to emphasize the fact, perhaps as an earnest of his affinity with les gars.Punched while playing a cameo in the execrable comic version of Casino Royale, he has to consult a French/English dictionary before responding “Ouch!” 

Jean Gabin, Belmondo, Un Singe en Hiver

However dismissive he may have been of his more thoughtful performances,  “immortal longings” occasionally stirred him to lift his game,  notably when, as producer as well as star, he agreed to play the nineteen-twenties swindler Serge Stavisky for Alain Resnais. “All Resnais wants to do,” said scriptwriter Jorge Semprun, “is make a film starring Belmondo and [Charles] Boyer, with music by Stephen Sondheim. He couldn’t care less what the subject is, so long as he has those three men.”  

Sumptuously designed by Jacques Saulnier, Stavisky...often resembles an automobile fashion parade of the kind that provides one of the film’s most stylish set-pieces. Modishly dressed in Yves St Laurent’s pastiches of années folles tailoring, Belmondo embodies Stavisky to the life.  

He was indifferent to Resnais’s attempts at a deeper analysis of the character, implied by the three periods that follow his name in the title.  In such a scene, Stavisky attends auditions for the theatre that is one of his numerous enterprises, and, on a whim, steps up to read lines for a nervous actress. The scene is from Jean Giraudoux’s Intermezzo and his character that of a phantom – the best performance of his life, decrees the Boyer character over the ruins of his  empire. 

Belmondo, Stavisky

Stavisky... debuted at the 1974 Cannes Festival, where it was almost universally reviled. “A massacre!,” Belmondo recalled. “Critics have never prevented me from sleeping - except on Stavisky...” But he shrugged off the regrets, as he shrugged off much else. As Michel jokes in À Bout de Souffle, “Reminds me of the one about the condemned man. Climbing the scaffold stairs, he trips, and says, ‘It figures…’”

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