Photos and details from the career of actor Jean-Paul Belmondo have filled the French and international media following his death yesterday.
Renowned for his work and much-loved for his larger-than-life persona, you may see, among phrases such as ‘legend’ and ‘national treasure’, the term monstre sacré used to describe the actor.
So, what exactly does it mean, and where does it come from?
Literally, it translates to ‘sacred monster’. However, the French use the phrase to refer to somebody who has achieved extraordinary feats in a particular field, and whom few would dare to criticise. It relates to people who have had a long-standing career rather than ‘one-hit wonders’.
The recipient of such a title must also, however, have a unique or ‘big’ personality. For example, a monstre sacré of film could be Tim Burton, and a monstre sacré of music would be Jimi Hendrix.
Belmondo starred in over 80 films as well as numerous theatre productions. Described by his friend and actor Christian Brincourt as “the best friend we all wanted to have”, he fits the mould of a monstre sacré of French cinema perfectly.
Fittingly, the expression was popularised by Jean Cocteau’s comedic play, Les Monstres Sacrés, first performed in 1940. The monstres in this case are a couple, who are both famous actors.
The word ‘monster’ here does not refer to the traditional ugly, frightening creature we might envisage but rather to something impressive or imposing. The Latin word monstrum, from which it derives, has multiple meanings which include ‘prodigy’ and ‘divine omen’.
A ‘giant’ is one possible translation in English, which similarly has a double meaning of a legendary creature and someone of great ‘stature’ in their field.
However, perhaps due to current connotations of the word or the fact that the word is of masculine gender, the term is more often used to describe men than women.