This week saw the passing of two titanic acting talents: French screen icon Jean-Paul Belmondo and American television icon Michael K. Williams. Their respective deaths prompted two different varieties of public mourning: Belmondo was acknowledged as the face (literally) of an entire cinematic movement, the French New Wave, and an epitome of continental cool. At 88 years of age, his death was not a surprise, but presented an opportunity to appreciate his unique place in film history.
Williams’ death, at 54, was a tragedy, pure and simple. His story is the stuff of inspiration: rescued from a troubled youth by theater, sporting a trademark facial scar as a result of being slashed by a razor blade at 25, experiencing homelessness at more than one point, he persevered through stereotypical “thug” casting to land a role on, well, pretty much the best TV series ever, HBO’s The Wire. Playing Omar Little, a brutal but textured prisoner of Baltimore’s inner city, Williams brought an intensity and a poignancy to the role that only deepened when Omar’s homosexuality became a key part of his character, making him a landmark in Black Queer representation in mainstream pop culture.
Williams’ best-known work after The Wire was also for HBO, on Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire and, most recently, in an Emmy-nominated role for Lovecraft Country. But he’ll be remembered forever for Omar, as well as for his off-screen honesty regarding his struggles with mental illness and addiction and the ways that playing Omar hit uncomfortably close to home. Fairly or not, the scar on his face superficially obscured the insightful, sensitive person he was in interviews and, by all accounts, in reality. Without that unique physicality, he may not have gotten the same initial opportunities, or he may have gotten different ones.
It seems certain, though, that in either case, he would have made the most of those opportunities. And in the present case, he would have had decades left in which to further hone his craft. This one, as they say, hurts.
Williams was a character actor par excellence, but Belmondo was a movie star of the first order. He stumbled into arthouse immortality by appearing in Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal Breathless, although he was not as persistently associated with the Nouvelle Vague as his contemporary Jean-Pierre Leaud. Instead, Belmondo transitioned into more mainstream fare, playing cops and criminals with identical panache. While little of his later work holds up against the movies that made his name, he remained a huge box-office draw in France for decades. (Famously, he forever resisted the lure of Hollywood, never appearing in an English-language role.)
Neither Williams nor Belmondo was what one would call conventionally handsome, yet each found a niche that exploited his particular brand of charisma. It’s telling, perhaps, that Belmondo achieved his unlikely leading-man status in the film industry of the 1960s, while Williams has most of his successes in the Second Golden Age of Television.
It’s easy (and eminently worthwhile!) to revisit The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Lovecraft Country, and The Night Of, in order to appreciate Williams’ talent. For Belmondo, here are five key performances to explore:
- Breathless (1960): The one that started it all, in so many ways. Not technically the first film of the French New Wave (or even the second), Godard’s formally revolutionary pastiche launched a thousand film students and set the tone for a decade of radical reinvention in cinema.
- Leon Morin, Priest (1961): In one of his more restrained roles, Belmondo plays a dreamy, idealistic cleric during the French Occupation who befriends an atheistic, Communist war widow (Emmanuelle Riva). Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob the Roller) directs.
- Pierrot le fou (1965): Teaming with Godard for the third time, Belmondo plays a bourgeois father and husband who flees his tedious life with an ex-girlfriend and ends up pursued by, among others, far-right paramilitaries and a dwarf assassin. The director is in full pop-nihilism mode here.
- That Man from Rio (1964): This massive hit marked the beginning of Belmondo’s career shift away from the arthouse and toward the multiplex. It’s a breezily entertaining James Bond spoof in which our hero strives to rescue his fiancé and her father while tracking down an invaluable South American relic.
- Stavisky (1974): Director Alain Resnais’ typically fragmented style doesn’t mesh perfectly with Belmondo’s suavity as an infamous swindler whose chicanery led to political chaos in 1930s France, but the result is a curious treat, not least because of the score by Stephen Sondheim.
(All but Pierrot le fou are available to stream for free via Kanopy, and all five are available for rental from Movie Madness.)
MY MOST ANTICIPATED PORTLAND OPENING this week is writer-director Paul Schrader’s new film, The Card Counter, starring Oscar Isaac. However, the film’s distributor chose not to make it available for screening by Portland critics. I’m trying not to take it personally.
Meanwhile, I did have a chance to check out the following:
Who You Think I Am: The eternal Juliette Binoche stars in this social-media psychodrama as Claire, a divorced, middle-aged literature professor who invents a younger online persona in order to get back at the twentysomething boyfriend who has dumped her. When “Clara”’s Facebook page draws the attention of the ex-boyfriend’s pal Alex, a cyber-romance develops between the two. Without ever meeting IRL, the relationship becomes more intense, with Claire (as Clara) sliding dangerously toward obsession. The story unfolds as she relates the saga to her new therapist (Nicole Garcia), which allows for some intriguing unreliable-narrator vibes, and the idea of layered realities and potent fantasies is a major theme for director Safy Nebbou. The only real hurdle to believability here is the idea of the 57-year-old Binoche playing a woman who is insecure enough about her age and/or appearance to resort to catfishing. (Currently playing at Living Room Theaters)
Raging Fire: A rip-roaring throwback to the golden age of Hong Kong action cinema, this gripping police officer stars veteran Donny Yen as Bong, a hard-boiled cop who’s a stickler for corruption but not above smashing a suspect’s head against the wall during an interrogation. Bong’s tolerance for police brutality goes only so far—a few years earlier, he testified against his friend and protégé Yao (Nicholas Tse) after Yao and his team beat an informant to death. Now Yao and crew are out of prison and gunning for revenge. This leads to some stunning fight choreography and one mesmerizing, inventive urban chase sequence that puts the vast majority of Hollywood efforts to shame. Yen, at 58, still has the martial arts chops that made him a global star—if he resorted to a stuntman in any of Raging Fire’s fight scenes, it doesn’t show. Sadly, director Benny Chan, another genre veteran, was diagnosed with cancer during the film’s production and passed away in August 2020, making this his final film. (Opens Friday, Sept. 10, at the Hollywood Theatre)
Language Lessons: An American (Mark Duplass) is gifted a series of online Spanish lessons from his husband, to be taught by a woman in Costa Rice (Natalie Morales). When tragedy strikes, their video friendship grows as each reveals facets of their lives to the other, all told within the boundaries of their computer screens. Yes, it’s another made-during-COVID movie, a literal two-hander co-written by its stars and directed by Morales. Both actors are more than adequate (Duplass can do “sensitive guy” in his sleep), but neither performance delves very deep, making this more of a formal exercise and way to keep busy during the pandemic than an engaging drama. It also, frankly, seems more appropriate for viewing on a laptop than the big screen, but it’s getting a theatrical release anyway. (Opens Friday, Sept. 10, at the Regal Fox Tower)