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« DVD Review: Alain Delon Boxset (1960-1975) | Main | DVD Review: The Family Way (1966) »

DVD Review: Jean-Paul Belmondo Boxset (1959 - 1981)

Belmondo_boxset I caught my first glimpse of Jean-Paul Belmondo in a French lesson in the 70s-think it was some book on French culture we were poring over and there it was, a picture of two figures in natty 1920’s threads and cocked hats, back to back, arms folded staring icily at the camera. Effortlessly out-staring the viewer they appeared to be in some competition with each other - a kind of duel of cool. Neither of them smiled but the older looking one had a warm humour in his eyes and the similarities and contrasts between these two handsome gents, instantly reminded me of my Hollywood heroes, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. The film was called Borsalino and the sharp looking cats were Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Catching his films a bit later in life I noted Belmondo’s style of acting owed less to Newman than to that of purveyor of cynical but roguish charm, Humphrey Bogart (a hero of his as it turns out) and this quality along with his rather haunted expression and an ability to switch from arrogant reserve to comedic openness rendered his performances unforgettable.

Witness his Laszlo Kovacs in Claude Chabrol’s A Double Tour (1959) and you’ll see what I mean. Shot in stunning colour, it follows the tale of a middle class family man and the murder of his younger mistress. When the wife of Henri Marcoux discovers his infidelity, her brand of damage limitation has her breaking off her daughter’s engagement to Laszlo who has been siding with and even encouraging her errant husband. A scandal, the wife reminds all, must be avoided but then the mistress is found dead. Qui est le Perp?

Bourgeois values and preoccupations are up for a good thrashing here as well as class differences. An ensemble cast give it their all and though Belmondo takes a supporting role, he steals a good bit of limelight with his mischevious presence. A great looking film that stylistically tugs its forelocks at the throne of Hitchcock.

The same year, Jean Luc Godard, already at the top of his game, cast Belmondo in A Bout De Souffle. I doubt that few people back then could have envisaged the iconic status he would come to occupy on the back of this New Wave classic. Fast paced, exhilarating and packed to the brim with stunning images and inventive ideas the film deserves the plaudits heaped upon it.

Belmondo inhabits the role of Michel, thief, ne’er-do-well and killer, all amphetamine charm who talks main squeeze, Patricia into hightailing it to Italy. Played memorably by the scrumptious Jean Seberg, (feel your jaw touch your knees as you first catch sight of her in that New York Herald Tribune tee shirt) she joins him on his odyssey into celluloid history. And all to a mesmerising jazz soundtrack, jump cuts a-go-go and scenes that sear your retina.  Influential, but in true New wave style wearing its influences like a badge of honour, the movie forms a perfect stepping stone between lost noir masterpiece, ‘Gun Crazy’ and ‘Bonnie And Clyde’. In fact, Warren Beatty is arguably doing a great impersonation of Belmondo/Michel/Laszlo Kovacs in Arthur Penn’s 1967 watershed Hollywood moment. A film to see before you die, as the saying goes.

Treading the same ‘couple on the run’ path as ‘A Bout De Souffle’ came 1965’s Pierrot Le Fou marking one of the stars last avante garde films and boy is it avante garde. Leaping from the stark monochrome of the latter picture into left field use of colour, Godard goes to town in the visuals department, offering up vistas that take your breath away as well as experimenting with narrative, on-screen conversations and our heads as disjointed repetitive phrases add a uniqueness to the proceedings.

After a dead body is found in her flat, a young baby sitter hits the road with an older man finding themselves caught up in increasingly more perilous criminal activities. Belmondo excels in his BAFTA winning male lead role and his accomplice and lover is played by the exceedingly beautiful Anna Karina. This ultimately sad film veers dizzyingly into surreal song and dance routines and interestingly features Hollywood hard-nut director, Sam Fuller as himself, discussing the nature of film. Again, the bourgeois middle classes are sniped at as well as the war machine and Vietnam.

Throughout the late 60s Belmondo shifted into more commercial but nonetheless challenging territory working with such luminaries as Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut and old collaborator, Claude Chabrol. In 1974 Nouvelle Vague veteran, Alan Resnais brought us Stavisky, based on a true life cause celebre, in which the eponymous Russian émigré, played deftly by Belmondo, leads a life of lies and subterfuge, eventually netting himself riches and a considerable powerbase.

This film does have an over riding earnestness about it and comes across, to me anyhow as a bit soapy-something like a US miniseries, so prevalent in the 70’s. It’s good looking enough and the cast, attention to detail and the haunting Stephen Sondheim soundtrack work the required magic to achieve a feeling of time and place, whilst Belmondo puts in a complex, sombre performance.

Le Professionnel (1981) is one of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s most successful movies, and perfectly illustrates his ongoing choices in commercial product whilst still oozing the style, panache and introspective cool befitting a lion of the French New Wave. Basically a revenge thriller set in Africa and Paris, his secret agent Beaumont, searches out those who betrayed him two years earlier.

In turns funny, and gritty, moving and violent the film really belongs to its star. His piercing eyes with that hint of a smile in them with softening craggy features adding a depth to what could have been a cardboard cut-out and his outstanding performance elicits our sympathy and keeps us hooked.

This new box set from Optimum collects together these 5 titles as well as throwing in the odd extras including a quirky, very watchable Jean-Luc Godard short film Charlotte Et Son Jules.

Mark Ellis

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