French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo returns to the silver screen after a paralysing attack
Jean-Paul Belmondo uses a metal crutch and drags his right leg when he walks. His upper body tilts to the left when he moves. He speaks in short sentences,sometimes slurring his words. His right arm sits lifeless by his side. But when the 75-year-old French actor with the blue-green eyes and broken nose smiles,he evokes the image of the charming gangster and cocky seducer he played in films decades ago.
During a vacation in Corsica in 2001,Belmondo had a stroke that paralysed the right side of his body and left him unable to speak for six months. With intensive daily physical therapy,he has been able to get back some of his physical strength.
Now,after more than 80 films and a score of theatre roles,he summoned a different kind of courage for his first film since his stroke. He agreed to do Francis Husters A Man and His Dog (Un Homme et Son Chien) only if it showed him as the old,disabled man that he is. Its me, he said,without any special effects. I hope to be an example for all.
So the film does not disguise Belmondos physical limitations. He is shown walkingslowly and with a canein only one scene. He has little dialogue. The deep lines creasing his face are made more dramatic with shadows. To showcase the comeback,the Paris-Match of January 14 put Belmondo on the cover,tanned,smiling,several gold chains peeking out from his lime-coloured linen shirt. He was photographed with a woman identified as the new love of his life,Barbara Gandolfi,a 33-year-old,raven-haired,equally tanned Italian who runs a vending machine business and owns nightclubs in Belgium.
In the film based on Vittorio De Sicas 1952 classic,Umberto D.,Belmondo plays Charles,a retiree,thrown out by his girlfriend and reduced to eating at a soup kitchen. He loses his dog,then finds him again.
The film has attracted limited crowds. This failure reflects in part a desire to remember Belmondo as he was in his signature roles: the lovable gangster in Breathless,the French soldier in perpetual motion in the comedy That Man From Rio,the man who played opposite beauties like Catherine Deneuve,Jean Seberg,Sophia Loren,Claudia Cardinale,Raquel Welch and Ursula Andress (with whom he had a long affair).
In the media,the criticism of the film has been savage. Under the headline Whats Left of Belmondo? the weekly magazine Le Point said,One can only be staggered by this portrayal of decrepitude and this disillusioned universe where the only point of interest is a dog. Le Monde faulted the film for the melodramatic overstatement of the script and the theatricality of the production.
Michel Drucker,a television host who has been a close friend of Belmondo for 40 years disagreed. He said he has watched Belmondo learn to speak again,word by word,and to walk again,centimetre by centimetre. This month Drucker devoted his hour-long weekly television show to Belmondo. It was his first on-screen interview since the stroke.
His comeback is unique in the history of cinema, Drucker said. It doesnt matter if the film is good or bad. For the people of France,Jean-Paul is back.