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Jean-Paul Belmondo, jaunty star of New Wave classic ‘Breathless,’ dies at 88

French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in 1964. (AFP/Getty Images)

Jean-Paul Belmondo, a French actor who vaulted to international renown as a playfully amoral gangster in Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal 1960 New Wave film “Breathless,” and who later enlivened dozens of hit comedy-adventures with his jaunty presence and stunts, died Sept. 6 at 88.

The office of his lawyer, Michel Godest, confirmed his death but did not share additional details.

With his tousled chestnut hair, sinewy physique and battered Roman nose, Mr. Belmondo personified the nonchalant antihero — the lackadaisical tough guy who could use his fists but would rather slug back a few pastis and see where life, or an adventurous woman, might take him.

In a career spanning six decades and about 90 films, he was most at home playing charming rogues, amorous rebels without a cause, and he became one of Europe’s most popular leading men. No film did more to define his persona than “Breathless,” in which he portrayed a criminal, on the run in Paris, who steals a car, senselessly shoots a police officer and is betrayed by his mercurial American girlfriend (played by Jean Seberg), whom he constantly hectors for sex.

“Breathless” was Godard’s debut feature and almost single-handedly launched the French New Wave movement that both paid homage to Hollywood archetypes and broke cinematic and narrative conventions.

Like many of Godard’s films, “Breathless” favored jump cuts instead of smooth transitions and featured ironic juxtaposition of images and dialogue. Characters mugged for the camera and self-consciously name-dropped writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Honoré de Balzac as well as Hollywood stars and directors. Mr. Belmondo’s car thief models his appearance almost entirely on photos of Humphrey Bogart.

Many of the film’s techniques were later adapted in music videos and feature films, particularly in art-house cinema.

Mr. Belmondo — who had mutinied against his bourgeois family by quitting high school, abandoned a promising start as an amateur boxer and poked fun at the revered dramatic institution he attended — found in Godard a rule-breaking soul mate. He was unfazed by the filmmaker’s spontaneous approach to the movie, which was filmed on a shoestring budget with a handheld camera on the streets of Paris, and whose script was written on the fly.

Godard’s conception of Mr. Belmondo’s character was minimalist, to say the least. “When I accepted the role,” Mr. Belmondo once told a French TV interviewer, “he gave me three little pages where he’d written, ‘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.’ ”

He added that he was comfortable with a film almost wholly dependent on improvisation. “If I’m told exactly how to do everything,” he said, “I become stiff and uncomfortable.”

He embraced Godard’s suggestion to “play around” with the character. Knowing that Mr. Belmondo liked to shadowbox in character, Godard filmed him boxing in front of a mirror as he experimented with his lines: “I’m not much of a looker, but I’m quite a boxer.”

The film — sexy, witty, youthful and fatalistic — became a cultural phenomenon. Mr. Belmondo became the subject of articles chronicling “le belmondisme,” his appealing air of insouciance.

Mr. Belmondo was inundated with offers and tried to avoid being typecast as the likable gadabout. One of his finest dramatic performances was in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Léon Morin, Priest” (1961), a story about desire and faith amid the German occupation that was acclaimed in later decades as an underrated gem.

But as he strove to establish his dramatic bona fides, the actor was miscast as a dour, martyred intellectual in “Two Women” and as an aloof steelworker who rejects the affections of the mill owner’s bored wife (played by Jeanne Moreau) in “Seven Days . . . Seven Nights” (both released in 1960). He found the latter, with a Marguerite Duras script, “very boring” and insufferably self-serious.

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“Everyone was looking for something significant in every expression,” he told the New York Times a few years later. “You didn’t just drink a glass of wine. You asked yourself, ‘Why does she want me to drink it?’ ”

More to his liking, he starred in the swashbuckling 18th-century costume comedy “Swords of Blood” (1962) opposite Claudia Cardinale as a gypsy pickpocket, and then in the freewheeling crime caper “Banana Peel” (1963) with Moreau. He had one of his greatest commercial successes with “That Man From Rio” (1964), a rollicking parody of chase films, with Françoise Dorléac as the woman he pursues across an ocean and through the Amazonian jungle.

Mr. Belmondo teamed again with Godard for “A Woman Is a Woman” (1961) and then “Pierrot le Fou” (1965), which skewered American militarism and consumerism with deadpan absurdity. His co-star both times was Godard’s wife, Anna Karina, who radiated a sensual soulfulness in the latter as his partner in crime.

Mr. Belmondo’s later films were a mix of conventional melodramas with more dramatically ambitious efforts. “Borsalino” (1970), a bloody gangster drama set in 1930s Marseille, paired him with Alain Delon in one of the biggest hits of both their careers. In director Alain Resnais’s “Stavisky” (1974), Mr. Belmondo portrayed a noted swindler of Depression-era France in a performance that critic Roger Ebert called a subtle variation on his usual “cocky bravado.”

Mr. Belmondo also put his swagger on display when he did his own stunts, whether dangling from an apartment tower for “That Man From Rio” or tumbling from a dump trunk into a garbage pit in “The Burglars” (1971). He sometimes took the field as a goalie for a soccer team he co-owned, Les Polymusclés.

Allergic to pretense, he reveled in mocking the banalities of celebrity interviews.

“What do you think of when you kiss a girl?” he was once asked by a reporter.

“The gas bill,” he said.

Jean-Paul Belmondo was born in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine on April 9, 1933, and his father, Paul, was a noted sculptor.

As a youth, Mr. Belmondo excelled in sports and pranks but little else. His famously broken nose was injured in a schoolyard fight, not the boxing ring. After a brief fling as a lightweight fighter, he realized he did not have the discipline for an athletic career. His other major interest was the movies. Growing up, he was transfixed by the seemingly effortless charisma of leading men such as Michel Simon and Maurice Jouvet.

He decided to go to acting school, saying that, in acting as in boxing, he liked the feeling of spectators taking notice of him. After graduating in 1956 from the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, where he mostly mastered impressions of his teachers, he worked in regional theater and had a handful of minor on-screen roles.

By chance, he worked with Godard on a short film that was not released commercially but was seen by many industry insiders. Among its admirers was director Claude Chabrol, who cast Mr. Belmondo as a ne’er-do-well in the acclaimed thriller “Leda” (1959) after another actor abandoned the featured part because of illness. Godard, meanwhile, had secured funding for a feature film that became “Breathless.”

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Mr. Belmondo’s marriages to Elodie Constantin, as a young man, and to dancer Nathalie “Natty” Tardivel, in the 2000s, ended in divorce. He had a long relationship with Ursula Andress after starring with her in the box-office success “Up to His Ears” (1965), and for much of the 1970s, he was the companion of Italian actress Laura Antonelli.

He had two children from his first marriage, Paul, a former racecar driver, and Florence, as well as a daughter from his second, Stella. A daughter from his first marriage, Patricia, died in a house fire in 1993. Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Belmondo had a stroke in 2001 that left him paralyzed on the right side of his body and unable to speak for half a year. In 2008, after his second divorce, he was seen squiring Barbara Gandolfi, a Belgian former Playboy model more than four decades his junior.

By the end of his life, Mr. Belmondo was celebrated as an eminence in French cinema. In addition to a run of middlebrow comedies and action films, he won favorable notices in “Les Misérables” (1995), director Claude Lelouch’s modernization of Victor Hugo’s novel.

In 2016, Mr. Belmondo received the Venice Film Festival’s award for lifetime achievement, and he was asked to reflect on a career that began with the avant-garde and morphed into the mainstream. “I had fun doing both types of roles,” he said. “Both are good. One day you laugh, and the next day you cry. That’s how it is.”