À bout de souffle, or Breathless in the English speaking world, shot Jean Paul Belmondo to international stardom along with the whole genre of the French New Wave movies. When Belmondo accepted the role that made him famous he was given a note by the 26 year old director Jean Luc Godard – it read: ‘He leaves Marseille. He steals a car. He wants to sleep with the girl again. She doesn’t. In the end, he either dies or leaves — to be decided.’ ”
Godard’s movie was almost made up as it went along (from an original idea from Francois Truffaut) and it confused many contemporary critics who had seen nothing quite like it. Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times:
It goes at its unattractive subject in an eccentric photographed style that sharply conveys the nervous tempo and the emotional erraticalness of the story it tells. And through the American actress, Jean Seberg, and a hypnotically ugly new young man by the name of Jean-Paul Belmondo, it projects two downright fearsome characters.
The so-called ‘hypnotically ugly young man’ (a short career as an amateur boxer helped cause the distinctive, idiosyncratic visage) put the French New Wave genre on the map and he went on to play many ‘anti-heroes’ or tough guys over the next few decades. In France his ‘air of insouciance’ became known as “le belmondisme” but the gangster type roles caused problems in his real life:
“Lots of times, I’d be out with a chick and some kid would want to give me a bad time, I used to fight it out with them. It’s the same now. Everyone wants to say he’s flattened Belmondo.”
In 1964 Time magazine declared Belmondo the face of modern France.
“The Tricolour, a snifter of cognac, a flaring hem – these have been demoted to secondary symbols of France,” it said.
“The primary symbol is an image of a young man slouching in a cafe chair … he is Jean-Paul Belmondo – the natural son of the Existentialist conception, standing for everything and nothing at 738 mph.”
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