Jean-Paul Belmondo death: French star of Breathless dies aged 88

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Jean-Paul Belmondo at Cannes Film Festival, 1964 (AFP via Getty Images)
Jean-Paul Belmondo at Cannes Film Festival, 1964 (AFP via Getty Images)

Jean-Paul Belmondo, the French actor who rose to fame as the star of Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave film Breathless, has died aged 88.

News of Belmondo’s death was confirmed by his agent to AFP.

Nicknamed Bébel by French fans, Belmondo was one of the last surviving icons of the French New Wave scene.

Known for his mocking, flippant and streetwise onscreen persona (his friend and fellow actor Jean Rochefort described him as “a gangster who had made the Conservatory, who didn’t run the streets”), Belmondo caused a stir among French cinemagoers with his rugged good looks.

Born in 1933 in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, he struggled at various private schools before briefly trying to make it as a boxer. He then applied to the prestigious National Academy of Dramatic Arts and was accepted in 1952, going on to enjoy success in several theatre productions.

Godard, then a critic at French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, spotted Belmondo during his performance in the 1958 production of Marc Allegret’s Un Drôle de Dimanche. He cast him in his short film, Charlotte and Her Boyfriend, dubbing his own voice over Belmondo’s.

Belmondo scored his first lead film role later that year, in Hendri Aisner’s Les Copains du dimanche, around the same time he was receiving attention for his performance in the play, Oscar. It was the latter which helped land him a role in the gangster flick Classe tours risques (1960), as a young gangster aiding Lino Ventura’s hunted murderer.

In his breakthrough role as Michel Poiccard in Godard’s Breathless, Belmondo assured his status as a darling of the New Wave and became known for his performances as hard men with a seductive edge. At the time, The New York Times observed that Belmondo was being offered “more acting assignments than he can handle”.

Among his roles in the early Sixties were a retired gangster in A Man Named Rocca, and as an alcoholic with Jean Gabin in A Monkey in Winter. He went against type in 1962’sCartouche, as a swashbuckling adventurer opposite Italian-Tunisian actor Claudia Cardinale.

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