Death of Jean-Paul Belmondo: the incredible life of the indomitable “Bébel”

the essential
Jean-Paul Belmondo, the sacred monster of French cinema, died on Monday, September 6 at his home in Paris at the age of 88. Bébel has appeared in 80 films and leaves behind unforgettable roles.

What the hell? could have asked Jean-Paul Belmondo. Because, in fact, he did not really stick to the canons of pure beauty: a chickpea snitch, bags under the eyes, a big mouth which is sometimes asymmetrical … Nothing to do with the irreproachable grace of Alain Delon, his eternal challenger , or the cute and mischievous face of a Jean-Claude Brialy.

Moreover, the clever Pierre Dux, professor at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art, decrees in front of this atypical student: “With the head he has, he could never take a woman in his arms, because that would not be credible. ! Fortunately, even the teachers at the Conservatory, including when they are huge actors, are sometimes wrong. Because Belmondo is above all a sparkling eye, a cracking smile, a judiciously naughty wick, in short, a crazy charm that tears empathy. Come on, we dare to take off his shirt, to feel the abs and check the pecs: there, everything is perfect! Frankly, who didn’t like “Bébel”? And who doesn’t love him today?

Moreover, Jean-Paul Belmondo was born a sportsman. Cabotin, and sporty. Imp and sportsman. Cheeky and sporty. His father, the sculptor Paul Belmondo enrolled him in the best schools, he was fired. He prefers football, cycling and boxing: nine fights, four wins, one draw.

An extraordinary bunch of friends

But what fascinates the young Jean-Paul Belmondo is the theater. He had the revelation in front of “Les Femmes Savantes” by Molière. He was not 18 when he took his first lessons with Raymond Girard. He failed twice before entering the Conservatory, as a free auditor. And there, he will forge an extraordinary band of friends who will make French spectators happy for decades: Jean Rochefort, Bruno Cremer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Pierre Vernier… Michel Galabru is not far away and Belmondo plays with Bedos the great classics of the duo Francis Blanche and Pierre Dac.

But Bébel remains rebellious: he is made to pay for it. At the conservatory competition, he was acclaimed by the public. Vachard, the jury, chaired by Marcel Achard, only grants him an accessit, and this bars him from entering the Comédie Française. Carried in triumph by his comrades, Belmondo addresses an arm of honor to the jury: a flash of panache that was not cinema!

Besides, if the old masters of the theater shun it, the cinema makes it his business. He toured with Allégret, then a film critic; Jean-Luc Godard, while throwing up the film; is ecstatic and sees in him the “Jules Berry, the Michel Simon of tomorrow”. The leader of the New Wave takes him on board.

We shoot in the open air, far from the studios, at full speed, in Paris and Marseille. Godard rewrites day by day the script of this love story between a crazy gangster and a fussy American, played by Jean Seberg. It’s “Breathless”, a cinematographic UFO and a real success. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s career is launched.

Tragicomic duet with Jean Gabin in 1962

He will shoot twenty films in two years, he who, coming from the boards, trembled at having to face the projectors and the cameras. He plays for Chabrol, Sautet, Verneuil, already crosses the tenors, Paul Frankeur, Lino Ventura, Jean-Claude Brialy, Serge Reggiani. He meets Anna Karina, Jeanne Moreau, Claudia Cardinale, Emmanuelle Riva. He married Élodie, his first wife, with whom he had three children, Paul, Patricia and Florence.

In 1962, it is the shock with the sacred monster, Jean Gabin, for “A monkey in winter” of Henri Verneuil, according to Antoine Blondin. Tragicomic duet between two magnificent losers, transfigured by the picole, and selling at the counter what is done best as dialogues of Audiard. A film so drinkable that the Ministry of Health at the time wanted to ban it for the apology of alcohol! France happily gets drunk, except Télérama, which of course only likes herbal tea.

Very quickly, Belmondo climbs, jumps, falls, twirls, spins and ricochets, between a train and a plane, between a villain and a pin-up, always with a smile. “Cartouche”, “The tribulations of a Chinese in China” (he will meet Ursula Andress there, and will live with her for some time), “The man from Rio”. In this last film, the stuntman Gil Delamare had planned replacements for the dangerous scenes.

“He’s the best stuntman I’ve ever trained”

In the end, it’s Bébel who sticks to it: “He’s the best stuntman I’ve trained. He is much better than me, ”admits Delamare. And this is how “The Man from Rio” then performed all of his stunts. Almost always, it passes… But there were some, sprained ankles, tortured fingers, pulleys in the muzzle, scarred thighs and pieces of ear skin in the claws of a badly licked tiger! Whatever, Bébel is the type to swallow fifty pumps at breakfast, a Marvel hero for real.

He loves action, however, in those years, Jean-Paul Belmondo was still carried away by the New Wave. He takes his head with dynamite in “Pierrot le Fou” by Godard. Philosopher on his life as a burglar in “Le Voleur” by Louis Malle. Frequent “La Sirène du Mississippi” alias Deneuve with Truffaut.

To end the decade of the 60s, he faces his lifelong friend-rival-competitor-colleague, the other who, like him, can fill a room on his name alone, Alain Delon. Jacques Deray simmers them a “Borsalino” from Marseille that is as hearty as a bouillabaisse, with the right amount of gleaming torpedoes, trips in the shade of the Good Mother, not to mention Claude Bolling’s mechanical piano. Friendship, fraternity, and… a slight confusion at the end, because Delon, producer, has his name twice in the credits. The egos almost blocked the Old Port.

Punches, rants, beautiful girls and car chases

However, little by little, Belmondo will end up making only Belmondo. Happily, of course, but in the end, quite a few variations: “Fear of the city”, “Incorrigible”, “Alpagueur”, “Magnificent”, “Animal”, “Guignolo”, “L e Professionnel”, “L’as des as”, “Le Marginal”, “Les Morfalous”, “Le solitaire”. For nearly fifteen years, each year we will see “THE” Belmondo of the year blooming again. It suffices that there is his name on the poster for the room to be full. There are always punches and rants, beautiful girls and awful twists, car chases, very perilous jumps, helicopters to hang from them, chiseled dialogues with small onions, supporting roles always tasty, sometimes the music of Ennio Morricone, in short, all the talent of cinema from the 70s and 80s.

These tapes have since been the delight of viewers, in countless reruns. During these prosperous years, the stars of the screen were also his conquests: he lived with the Italian Laura Antonelli, then the Brazilian Carlos Sotto Mayor.

It must be admitted that when Bébel returns to auteur films, this does not succeed: Alain Resnais’ excellent “Stavisky” is exhausted by the critics, and Belmondo will be deeply affected by it.

Belmondo torpedoed by stroke in 2001

The friend Lelouch will come, in 1988, to pose a keystone to this adventurous course of the fabric, with “Itinerary of a spoiled child”. Later, Patrice Lecomte causes a fraternal reunion between him (65 years old) and Alain Delon (63 years old) for a mutual cabotinage around Vanessa Paradis in “Une chance sur deux”.

Iron health ? Unfortunately, in 2001, Bébel was torpedoed by a stroke. Facial paralysis, handicap in the right arm, it is La Scoumoune for Bébel, who will fight like a hell of a devil. It will take years to recover, but it will come back.

Francis Huster offers him in 2009 “A man and his dog”, as a final nod to the film. He is now a monument, which we honor at the Venice Film Festival in 2015 with a Golden Lion for his career, in 2017, he received a César of honor, and a huge ovation. In 2002, Natty, a former coco girl came into her life, then left for the benefit of the sultry Barbara Gandolfi. In recent years, he hardly ever went out, folded up in a square of faithful.

In 2020, during confinement, he had received a phone call. One of his friends, who had taken the call, had launched: “Hey, the Magnificent, I pass you the Samurai!” It was Alain Delon, of course.

This time, Bébel let go of the helicopter’s skate. She will be missed, her face.