Belmondo Can’t Go Home Again



Although Jean-Paul Belmondo passed away only recently, on September 6th, 2021, at the ripe old age of 88, it nevertheless seems, paradoxically, both closer and further away than that. Longer because the French actor’s substantial body of work stretches back from the middle part of the last century through the turn of the present, and nearer because Breathless (1960), Le Doulos (1962), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Borsalino (1970), Le Magnifique (1973), Le Professionnel  (1981), Les Misérables (1995), and many others both before and after retain as much character, resonance, and versatility as the actor’s catcher’s mitt of a grin. Art films, moody thrillers, thrilling actioners, introspective dramas, broad comedies; that endlessly adaptable, often literally disarming smile, employed and deployed in the widest variety of movies imaginable, seems still present in an eternity death could never claim, and still timeless in movie realities as expansive as an actor-auteur’s imagination.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics continues to keep that diversity alive with their early April Blu-ray release of The Body of my Enemy; a mid-1970s departure of sorts for the actor and his frequent director, Henri Verneuil. Received with mixed confusion by contemporary audiences and critics alike, if still healthy box office receipts, this decided change-of-pace, not quite the Belmondo film anyone was then expecting, has surprising resonance 45 years after its initial run in keeping, perhaps, with this timely drama’s film-length movie-dramatization of a changing world. Showing, once again, that not only could Belmondo change with the times, but his inescapable charm could grin its way through any challenging mood, situation, or storyline.

François Leclercq (Belmondo) emerges from prison after serving a ten-year sentence to a newly bewildering France. Walking down the streets of his hometown in his gray cashmere suit, the city has grown by building site-chasm leaps and shadow sky-scraping bounds in his long absence; generic luxury flats and sterile glass buildings springing up every which way, the sprawling sidewalks literally overtaken by discounted, marked-down, mass-produced merchandise streaming from the region’s now powerful textile factory.

Ten years older but none the wiser as to what – or who – robbed him of a decade of life, Leclercq revisits the now unfamiliar haunts of his past, and the half-remembered faces populating those distant memories, in an attempt to reconstruct history in an unrecognizable present. From a gracious-seeming manufacturer (Bernard Biler) and his imperious if captivating daughter (Marie-France Pisier), a one-time business associate dealing in multiple layers of deception (François Perrot) to a former, still burly bodyguard now going by the dominatrix handle of “Janine” (Claude Brosset), to the distinguished mayor of the city with many shameful secrets to hide (Daniel Ivernel) to an aging parent (Suzy Prim) of a since deceased lover; this two-hour film-tour of the dimly-recalled avenues of time, place, and memory may eventually lead our admirably open-minded dream-walker Leclercq to discover who – or what – possesses the title corpus and where it may come to lie.

Subtly inverting a 1975 novel by prominent right-wing author Félicien Marceau, renowned screenwriter Michel Audiard, with director Verneuil, substantially changed the original’s meaning and emphasis in adapting Le Corps de mon ennemi, also the film’s French title, so rapidly to the screen. Having come off the runaway success of Fear Over the City (1975), one of the director-actor team of Verneuil and Belmondo’s most action-packed and crowd-pleasing spectacles, The Body of my Enemy contains far fewer of those eye-popping, one-take, non-doubled, real-time physical stunts Belomondo had become known for, following the still mind-boggling Le Casse (1975; AKA The Burglars) – limited in Body to a well-choreographed fight sequence on a meeting hall balcony, some narrative-establishing soccer footage, a truly shocking head-butt special to his future Le Professionnel co-star Bernard-Pierre Bonnadieu, and a nice tuck-and-roll towards the end of the movie out of a speeding car’s murderous way (all dutifully, misleadingly featured in the film’s four-minute trailer) – in favor of several equally dangerous if less action-oriented chances taken in terms of character, theme, and especially dramatic structure.

Quoting KLSC commentator Howard S. Berger, “the stunts [Belmondo performs] in The Body of my Enemy are emotional”, and the very different spectacle the film, its director, and its lead actor perform is a sometimes disorienting stripping away of the aforementioned time, place, and memory – or past, present, and future – in unravelling both the who and what of our protagonist’s unexplained predicament. Flashbacks within flashbacks, past events that may never have occurred, characters that may not exist outside his memories, and a hometown that has not only passed him by but also in which he no longer has any place: something certainly has happened here, but what it is, quoting the old song’s familiar refrain, ain’t exactly clear.

Which, without giving too much away, I leave to other viewers to (hopefully) discover for themselves. Myself, it took no less than three viewings (of increasing clarity) to discover the precise nature and full dimensions of that who/what; and might add that in this period of hyper-inflation, sky-rocketing rents, ultra-gentrification – the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, basically – our own rapidly-altering world is bracingly mirrored in the similarly disorienting “modern city” that in no way resembles the good ol’ town of ‘your youth’ (or the good ol’ town you remember) The Body of my Enemy presages. And then, like the stark black-and-white poster image of a Bogie-tuxed Belmondo back in the day, with a reversible graphic of a more pensive Belmondo peering from behind a latched door into some ever-deeper unknown further within, the orange flames enveloping a barely perceptible photograph may become tellingly clear.

But also a strangely hopeful clarity. As the departing train that closes the film, graphically and narratively matching the arriving train that opened it, speeds Leclercq and a fresh-faced companion (Élizabeth Margon) – another hopeful – towards Gay Paree, he not only leaves the past and its ghosts behind, but actively reclaims his future – or its manifold of open possibilities – precisely as his Great Enemy loses any mortal claim to any future whatsoever. A rich corpse sprawled over green grass, fatally felled mid-stroke even before his ball hits the fairway – possibly his best-ever taken shot; in both senses – there’s suddenly one less bastard in the world. Freed of the past, the title-telegraphy satisfyingly fulfilled, Leclercq’s future is now his own.

KLSC’s Blu-ray addition to their growing library of deserving if underknown Jean-Paul Belmondo titles includes, in the case of The Body of my Enemy, a typically entertaining and informative commentary – entertainment and information notoriously hard to combine in this format, one should add – from the far-from-typical commentary team of Nathaniel Thompson, Howard S. Berger, and Steve Mitchell. Who are clearly on the case, bringing their passion for, knowledge of, and expertise on everything Belmondo for 121 sustained minutes of enjoyable discussion and illuminating analysis on this difficult but ultimately rewarding Belmondo film. With The Body of my Enemy, in context of Belmondo’s eight other collaborations with director Henri Verneuil, Mitchell, Berger, and Thompson make relevant connections to that title-appropriate and again substantial body of work, paying particular attention to the always malleable contours of the Belmondo persona – as expressively elastic as the actor’s character-laden facial features – and how Body at the time of its release may have been seen as somewhat of a confusing departure, but which has also gained a certain something (one will resist the temptation to say je ne sais quoi, except in parentheses) in the forty-odd years since Belmondo/Leclercq’s departure, and his title enemy’s own ignominious exit, at film’s-end. The best one can say about a commentary is that it adds to the experience of the film, and Thompson, Berger, and Mitchell certainly articulate both the complexity and entertaining qualities of The Body of my Enemy.

Leaving a reviewer to no other recourse than to end with the image of the late Jean-Paul Belmondo’s now immortal grin that began this review, KLSC’s high-definition release of a comparative deep-cut within the Belmondo filmography preserves the estimable mid-70s vibe of its visuals and its Francis Lai-composed score, the crisp immediacy of both the sound and image really hitting a (literal?) hole-in-one along with the title ending. Bemondo may be smiling his own way to other points Paris – if he isn’t heading towards another Tativille, that is – but no matter where he disembarks after the end, he certainly changed the old place for the better before leaving it.

Images in this review are used only as a visual reference to the film and do not reflect the image quality of the Blu-ray.