Bel Epoque: Cannes holds its breath for return of Belmondo

One of cinema's legends, the French New Wave's irresistible rogue and embodiment of cool, is back. Geoffrey Macnab reports

When the legendary French movie star Jean-Paul Belmondo arrives at the Cannes festival in a fortnight's time, he will be feted with a special evening dedicated to an extraordinary career.

There will be a party as well as the premiere of a new documentary (Belmondo, The Career by Vincent Perrot and Jeff Domenech) and, on the beach, screenings of some of his older movies. Cannes organisers are promising the "sound of rapturous applause" from fans for whom Belmondo, despite approaching his ninth decade, endures as the man hailed a genius by François Truffaut, and the irresistible rogue who embodies French cool.

For Belmondo, 78, coming back to Cannes after a lengthy absence will also be a chance to remind the world of his triumphs on screen after a period in which his private life has been pored over more exhaustively than his acting achievements.

"It will be a way to have Jean-Paul back in the cinema pages and not only in the gossip section of the newspapers," says Thierry Fremaux, general delegate of the Cannes Festival.

Ever since he began a relationship with the glamorous Belgian ex-Playboy model Barbara Gandolfi (43 years his junior) three years ago, Belmondo has been at the centre of an unseemly scandal – the so-called "Belmondo affair". There were allegations that Gandolfi had been taking advantage of the star, whose career slowed down dramatically after he suffered a stroke in 2001. In particular, there were questions over a substantial loan that he made to her. His family had received death threats, warning him that he should leave Barbara.

The actor fiercely denied that he was being manipulated by Gandolfi. The Belmondo whose face stares out of the many paparazzi pictures alongside Gandolfi remained the same defiant figure with the jagged nose and wry grin we all remember from Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960). Nonetheless, it will surely be a relief for him to be back on the red carpet in Cannes among his admirers.

For the festival itself, hosting the tribute to Belmondo is a belated way of atoning for the manner in which Cannes treated him on his last official visit with a new film in 1974. Alain Resnais' Stavisky, a drama about the French businessman and crook, Alexandre Stavisky, is now seen as one of Belmondo's best movies but, at the time, it was given a very hostile reception. Stung by the criticism, Belmondo has largely stayed away from the festival ever since.

"Every year, we ask him to come but he always said no," Fremaux says. "He has had health problems. I had a lunch with him and he feels easier with that [his health] now. He feels good. He accepts what he is now."

The 78-year-old Belmondo may indeed be "one of the greatest French actors of all time" (as Fremaux calls him) but arguably the real reason the fans still so adore "Bebel" is that swagger, arrogance and sense of mischief about him. He lives up gloriously to all our stereotypes of Gauloise-smoking, womanising, hard-living Gallic masculinity. Nothing seems to faze him. The most popular French star of his era, he never sold out to Hollywood.

It is easy enough to identify the moment at which Belmondo became the biggest star of his era in French cinema. It's that extraordinary finale to Breathless. Belmondo's character, a petty hoodlum who combines charm and thuggery in equal measure, is shot. We see him in his dying throes, teetering down the street in a bandy-legged, slow motion run with his gamine-like American girlfriend (Jean Seberg) following behind him. Strident jazz music plays on the soundtrack. He collapses and turns on his back, pulling his cigarette out of his mouth. Onlookers stand around him. Seberg arrives.

His final words to her are "C'est vraiment dégueulasse", which is translated for Seberg by a bystander, depending on which English subtitles are used, as "You little bitch," "You scumbag" or "You make me want to puke". As he dies, he has such a beatific expression on his face that it's as if he is murmuring tender endearments, not obscenities, to her.

Belmondo loved to cultivate the idea that he was the roughneck with the sensitive side. He is the most contradictory of stars: the sex symbol who, as a kid, was self-conscious about his "ugly mug", the salt-of-the-earth Everyman who actually came from a pampered bourgeois background; the intense Method actor who prides himself on playing comedy. Thanks to Breathless, he is seen as one of the faces of the French New Wave.

At the same time, he harks back to a completely different tradition of French screen acting – he is seen as the successor to venerated stars like Jean Gabin and Michel Simon, who likewise combined machismo and a child-like yearning.

Fremaux likens him to Gérard Depardieu, pointing out that Belmondo too always made auteur films (with directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville and François Truffaut) alongside more popular action movies and comedies.

Younger French actors like Jean Dujardin and Vincent Cassel look up to him, as does Quentin Tarantino. "He is very popular in China, Mexico and the US," Fremaux notes.

"[The US producer] Harvey Weinstein told me, 'I'm so happy that you pay tribute to Jean-Paul Belmondo. He's one of my heroes.'" Fremaux has no doubts at all about the Belmondo legacy. "His body of work is one of the most important in the history of cinema."

Belmondo's Best

Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

Belmondo became known as "the French Bogart" after his swaggering performance as the criminal and cop killer who seduces an American ingénue (the close-cropped Jean Seberg.)

Pierrot Le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

Belmondo again gets to die in spectacular fashion, this time wrapping his face with dynamite, lighting the fuse and then being too slow to put it out again when he has second thoughts. He excels as the unhappily married bourgeois husband who runs off with the babysitter into a world of beatnik gangsterism.

Leon Morin, Priest (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961)

This is Belmondo in quieter, more meditative mode as the young, handsome and altruistic priest who becomes the focus of a young widow's romantic obsession.

The Man From Rio (Philippe de Broca, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1964)

This is Belmondo as Bond-style action hero, running, jumping and (as ever) doing all his own stunts in a fast-paced spoof of Bond-like movies set against the backdrop of the Brazilian city.

Mississippi Mermaids (François Truffaut, 1969)

"For me, without any doubt at all, Jean-Paul Belmondo is the best actor around today, the best and the most versatile," said Truffaut when he cast the actor as the plantation owner who sends for a mail-order bride, played by Catherine Deneuve. Remade in 2001 as Original Sin, starring Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie.

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