The spectrum of cool can be a fluid and fickle thing: here today, gone tomorrow. There are countless instances of flash-in-pan dilettantes who may have had "it" for those beloved 15 minutes, but are now lost to the rubble of squaresville. But there are icons who will forever live on as the embodiment of some ineffable energy and charisma that draws us to them. This month AFS Cinema, in partnership with the wonderful Alliance Française d'Austin, is celebrating one of those greats in their series Mondo Belmondo, highlighting the work of France's greatest export (wine be damned), Jean-Paul Belmondo.
The series pairs both Belmondo's arthouse classics with his time as one of the premier action stars of the time, and it kicks off with the initial salvo of the Nouvelle Vague (shh, don't tell Jean Cocteau), Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. Whole forests have suffered from the amount of ink and paper used to discuss this seminal film, and rightly so. There are many reasons that Breathless has attained an iconic status, but Belmondo's presence as Michel (or Laszlo Kovacs) is a heaping help of it. "Full speed ahead, Fred!" he yells in the opening scene (although I always preferred the original French: "Maintenant Je fonce, Alphonse!") and sends us into this jazzy, breezy, and dizzying deconstruction of gangster films and cinema itself. And guess what? It holds up brilliantly, with Belmondo's nihilistic thug and Jean Seberg's Patricia railing against, well, everything. "I don't know if I'm unhappy because I'm not free, or if I'm not free because I'm unhappy," Seberg's character laments at one point. If that doesn't resonate with you, you had better check your pulse. Companion film Léon Morin, Priest casts Belmondo as the titular role of a man grappling with love and war in Jean-Pierre Melville's unsung classic of occupied France. Both films utilize Belmondo's inherent allure to brilliant effect.
But nothing can really prepare your senses for the two films he made with action director Philippe de Broca that round out the series. Belmondo had a penchant, or perhaps death wish, to perform his own stunts (as documented by the many YouTube compilations available), way before that milquetoast Tom Cruise was dangling off of airplanes or mountains, or whatever. There was a time when studio insurance companies didn't have a clause for the continued well-being of their actors, as evidenced in both That Man From Rio and Le Magnifique (aka The Magnificent One). Rio plays it mostly straight, a Eurospy thriller that sees Belmondo traipsing through that lovely city, avoiding exploding cars and thwarting assassins while precariously navigating a high-rise construction site. But it is Le Magnifique that is (in this writer's opinion) the real jewel in this series. An arch and sly parody of the espionage genre so popular at the time, it combines slapstick comedy, thrilling set-pieces, and critical theory into a heady cocktail that even the most jaded cineaste will be picking up their jaw off the floor at regular intervals. Have you ever witnessed a guy in a telephone booth get snatched by a helicopter and dropped into the ocean where a man-eating shark is waiting to dispose of him? Well, that's just the opening scene. Do yourself a favor and get your passport for this celebration of endless Gauloises and derring-dos, and a man who never said no to falling down an enormous rock quarry. And if that is not enough to entice you, get stuffed.
Breathless (1960) Friday, 7pm; Sunday, 6:30pm.
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