5 essential films with iconic French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo to watch

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French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo has died today at the age of 88.

An icon, affectionately known as Bebel in his native country, Belmondo is one of the most beloved and charismatic actors in French cinema. The French New Wave propelled him to fame and several other iconic roles with some of the greatest directors, becoming France’s biggest box office star.

Born on April 9, 1933 to artist parents, the famous sculptor Paul Belmondo and the painter Madeleine Rainaud-Richard, Jean-Paul Belmondo trained as an actor at the prestigious National Conservatory of Dramatic Art. During his 60-year career, Belmondo starred in more than 80 films, starting with the French New Wave, he turned in the 1970s to comedy and action films and made a name for himself for its impressive cinematic stunts. With such an impressive filmography, it’s hard to choose just five films. But if you were only going to watch five movies he’s starred in, these are the ones I’d pick to start with.

Breathless (Breathless)

Jean-Paul Belmondo is best known internationally for his first major leading role. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, À Breathless saw Jean-Paul Belmondo play as Michel Poiccard, a young delinquent hidden from the police in Paris where he meets the beautiful American Patricia, played by Jean Seberg, walking the Champs-Elysées to sell copies of the New York Herald Tribune. The iconic Godard film, revolutionary in style, propelled Belmondo to fame, thus becoming internationally known. Belmondo will star in three other films directed by Godard. Breathless is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video and to stream on The Criterion Channel.

Léon Morin, priest

With the success of Breathless, Belmondo played in seven films before taking the helm of Jean-Pierre Melville’s film Léon Morin, priest in 1961, based on a novel by Béatrix Beck. His role as an attractive young priest in Melville’s film is completely different from that of Michel Poiccard in Breathless. The film tells the story of a young widow, played by Emmanuel Riva, who decides to have her daughter baptized during the Nazi occupation. She meets local priest Léon Morin, and they both find themselves confronted with their own religious faith as well as their own repressed sexual desires. Belmondo’s performance here is both subtle and sensual, masterfully directed by Melville. Léon Morin, priest is on KinoNow.

The Doulos

A year later, in 1962, Belmondo starred in Melville’s upcoming noir crime film, The Doulos. Belmondo plays the gangster Silien, who helps his friend fresh out of prison Maurice Faugel, played by Serge Reggiani, to prepare for another heist. Silien, however, is a police informant. The Doulos full of traditional black themes and gangsters wearing trench coats and hats. This French black is available for rent on Amazon Prime Video.

Pierrot le fou

Pierrot le fouBelmondo’s most cult streak sees Belmondo co-star Anna Karenina bored and moaning that she doesn’t know what to do with herself (“I don’t know what to do”) until Belmondo tell him to shut up. Belmondo plays Ferdinand, a father who runs away with the baby-sitter, Marianne, played by Anna Karenina. The pseudo-romance quickly turns into a road movie filled with cliché French expressions and literary quotes. This was Belmondo’s third collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard, after Breathless and his musical A woman is a woman (A woman is a woman). At the time that Belmondo starred in Pierrot le fou in 1965, he was already considered a big star in France. Pierrot le fou is on Apple TV and Prime Video.

Fear Over the City (aka The Night Caller)

In Fear over the city, directed by Henri Verneuil, Belmondo plays the policeman Jean Letellier tracking down a serial killer. The film is best known for the scene in which Belmondo runs after the serial killer on top of the moving metro as he crosses the Bir-Hakeim bridge in Paris. It’s an incredible stunt sequence, which Belmondo did all himself. Fear Over the City is emblematic of the genre of films in which Belmondo starred and produced in the 1970s and 1980s. He then had a predilection for action films, in which he himself directed the stunts, as in The Guignolo who saw him hanging from a helicopter over Venice; or in The Animal where Belmondo stood on top of a moving plane; or in the cult car chase sequence with the Eiffel Tower in the background in the professional which is available for rental on Prime Video.


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