Unforgettable Anna Karina

On Film / The Daily — Dec 17, 2019
Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petit soldat (1963)

With the passing of Anna Karina over the weekend—she was seventy-nine—we have now lost three major figures of the French New Wave this year alone. In 1961, the year she married Jean-Luc Godard, Karina was coached through the recording of “La chanson d’Angela,” a song she’d perform in Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman, by composer Michel Legrand, who died in January. That same year, Agnès Varda, who passed away in March, directed Karina and Godard in The Fiancés of the Bridge Mac Donald, a short silent comedy that Varda incorporated into her second feature, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962). Karina would go on to record with the likes of Serge Gainsbourg and work with directors as varied as Jacques Rivette, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Luchino Visconti, George Cukor, Tony Richardson, and Raúl Ruiz. She even directed herself in two features, Vivre ensemble (1972) and her final film, Victoria (2008). And she wrote four novels. But any discussion of Karina’s illustrious career always circles back to the seven features she made with Godard.


Fairly or not, it’s this short-lived yet remarkable partnership that continues to capture critics’ imaginations. “Not since Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich had there been a director-and-star tandem so potent,” writes David Ehrenstein in Variety. In 2016, as Karina was touring the UK and the States with a new restoration of Band of Outsiders (1964) and speaking openly and generously about her years with Godard, director Caveh Zahedi proposed that these seven collaborations “constitute, arguably, the most influential body of work in the history of cinema.” Writing for Filmmaker, Zahedi took this line of argument even further than others might when he added that “Godard’s relationship with Karina became the hidden subject of those films, and the poetic mastery with which he tracks the ups and downs of that five-year relationship surpasses even what Fellini and Bergman were able to achieve in their lifelong collaborations with Giulietta Masina and Liv Ullman, respectively.”

Talking to Glenn Kenny in the New York Times, Karina said that she and Godard “did not see ourselves as remaking cinema at the time, at least not in my view . . . We were running around, shooting in the streets, hiding behind trees to do our makeup . . . You were always moving through the scene in an active way that was more like being than acting.” More than five decades on, it may be difficult to imagine how startlingly refreshing that sense of lightness, combined with Godard’s radical stylistic innovations and the wide-open appeal of Karina’s features, impacted audiences. “Whether playing a streetwalker or a terrorist,” writes Anita Gates in the NYT, Karina “managed to look flirtatious, with her dark hair, wispy bangs, heavy eyeliner and lycée-chic wardrobe of sailor-uniform tops, knee socks, lots of plaid and perky headwear, from berets to boaters.” For Nick Newman at the Film Stage, Karina’s presence on the screen “has often seemed inscrutable: as quick-witted as she is goofy, as likely to indulge in cartoonish physical gestures as she is to display her preternatural beauty, and always hiding something behind the eyes.”

Godard famously first saw Karina beaming from a bathtub in a Palmolive ad. She’d arrived in Paris a year or two before, having grown up in Denmark as Hanne Karin Bayer and being passed around between her single mother, her grandparents, and foster parents. By the time she was fourteen, Karina was already writing short stories and had appeared in a short Danish film that screened in Cannes. When she was seventeen, Karina ran off to France and spent her first few weeks in Paris literally living on the streets. At the café Les Deux Magots, a talent scout spotted her, and she almost immediately launched a modeling career. Legend has it that it was Coco Chanel who advised her to change her name.

Godard offered her a small role in his first feature, Breathless (1960). It would require a flash of nudity, so Karina turned him down. But what about that Palmolive ad?, Godard countered. Karina assured him that she was only nude in his imagination. Not only was she wearing a bathing suit, she was up to her neck in suds. A year later, Godard offered her one of the lead roles in his second feature, and it was during the shoot of Le petit soldat in 1960 that they fell in love.

Le petit soldat was banned in France for three years for its torture scenes and, as Drew Hunt has put it at Slant, its “unsavory picture of the French armed forces in their conflict with the Algerian National Liberation Front.” Michel Subor plays Bruno Forestier, a French agent living in Geneva who falls for Karina’s mysterious Véronica Dreyer. “In the film’s centerpiece,” wrote Scott Foundas in the Village Voice in 2013, “Bruno photographs Karina’s Véronica in her apartment as they discuss love, death, and war—a dazzling sequence, at once interrogation and seduction, during which Subor utters that eternal Godard maxim, ‘Cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.’”

In the musical comedy A Woman Is a Woman (1961), Godard’s first feature in color and his first shot in Cinemascope, two men (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Claude Brialy) have fallen for Karina’s Angéla, an exotic dancer who yearns to have a child. The film is “an intoxicating expression” of the idea that “movie love was the stuff that movies could be made of,” wrote the NYT’s A. O. Scott in 2003. “The purest embodiment of this notion is Ms. Karina herself, who gestures backward, toward Louise Brooks and Claudette Colbert; sideways toward Audrey Hepburn; and forward to Audrey Tatou and, for that matter, Julia Roberts. Here, mugging and sighing, weeping and giggling, she is pretending to be a movie star—and in the process becoming one.”

As for what kind of star she was becoming, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody suggested in 2016 that in her films with Godard, “Karina identified not with characters but with herself, perhaps even more fully on camera than in private life—to create an enduring idea of herself. Karina didn’t become the characters she played; they became her. In this regard, her work with Godard (like that of other actors in his films) is close to the achievement of Joan Crawford, John Wayne, or other Hollywood icons whose limitations and artistry are inseparable.”

Godard returned to black and white with Vivre sa vie (1962), in which Karina plays Nana, a woman who leaves her husband and child only to discover that she’s unable to make ends meet on her own. In the film’s most famous scene, she’s moved to tears as she watches Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in the oppressive darkness of a movie theater. “There’s little overestimating the impact this tiny moment had on cinema at large,” writes Michael Atkinson in the essay accompanying our release. “In a stroke, Godard iconized the Cinémathèque française lifestyle, an entire generation’s discovery of film as an art form, the capacity of classic cinema-going to be tragic and romantic and supercool, and the quintessentially Godardian idea that movies are always about their own movieness . . . You don’t watch Karina, or absorb her uncanny relationship with Godard’s camera (a bewitching rapport that has eluded Godard with any other actress, and Karina with any other director), for her diegetic conviction but for herself, alive and captured in the filmmaking moment, as if in amber.”

With its frantic footrace through the Louvre and that immortal scene in which three small-time thieves—Karina, Claude Brasseur, and Sami Frey—for seemingly no reason whatsoever get up from their café tables and dance the Madison, Band of Outsiders (1964) “at first seems a film of gestures rather than a singular, coherent drama,” writes Joshua Clover. But it’s “a movie with a main motion—not that of a noir or a policier but of a love story. Like so many Godard films, it’s a love story with a bullet in it.” Karina often said that she and her costars spent three weeks dancing the Madison, rehearsing longer than for any other scene in a Godard film. “People would always accuse us of improvising,” she told Michael Atkinson in the Voice in 2001, “but it’s absolutely not true. Jean-Luc’s scripts were always carefully revised, red pages, blue pages, yellow pages. Sure, often he’d make up dialogue on the spot, but everything was rehearsed.”

By the time they were preparing to shoot the sci-fi noir Alphaville (1965), Godard and Karina had split. Their divorce was finalized in December 1964. Karina always maintained the utmost respect for Godard as a director. “He’s such a genius; you must trust him completely,” she told Atkinson. But she also often spoke frankly with interviewers about Godard’s potential for callousness as a husband. He’d say he was stepping out for cigarettes and then be gone for three weeks at a time.

On the set of Pierrot le fou (1965), Godard and Karina “could hardly talk to each other, and when they did it was in snarls and groans,” wrote David Thomson for Sight & Sound in 2009, suggesting that “Godard the ironist and analyst only made the film because of that masochistic urge to have an ex-lover stub out her last feeling with every look into his camera.” While shooting their last film together, Made in U.S.A (1966), Godard wrote up a complex monologue for Karina and insisted on filming it immediately. Glenn Kenny notes that as she recalled that moment in their 2016 conversation, “her incredulity and indignation made it sound as if she was upset about something that had happened just yesterday. ‘He was making a fool of me, and he did it on purpose,’ she bristled.”

Among the many highlights of Karina’s career after Godard is Anna (1967), a colorful musical made for French television by Pierre Koralnik that also features Jean-Claude Brialy, Marianne Faithfull, and Serge Gainsbourg, with whom Karina evidently had a terrific time. “We spoke slang and drank red wine and ate cheese,” she told Yonca Talu in Film Comment in 2016. “He was more fun.” So was George Cukor, who directed Karina in Justine (1969). “I really loved him and we became very good friends,” she told Talu. “Every time he came to Paris, we would see each other . . . Cukor taught me a lot. He said to me: ‘Anna, you learn the lines and then you say it in a bad way, in an angry way, in a crying way, in a hysterical way, in a funny way. Then you sleep on it, and then you see, when you come to the set next morning, you will be able to do something very interesting.’”

Last year’s restoration of Jacques Rivette’s The Nun (1965) has led many to reassess the adaptation of Denis Diderot’s novel that was banned twice before French censors eventually allowed it to premiere in Cannes in 1967. Writing for Slant in 2006, Keith Uhlich found that The Nun is “anchored by Anna Karina’s simmer-to-boil-and-back-again lead performance as Suzanne, the bastard daughter of faded aristocrats who is effectively sacrificed to a corrupt, eighteenth-century religious hierarchy.” Earlier this year, Adrian Martin wrote that “Karina was both blessed and cursed (then as now) with the tag of icon or emblem of the Nouvelle Vague; almost everyone who cast her exploited that association, and rarely required of her to play an individual character of any depth. The Nun is the shining exception to that rule: in every respect, the role shows what she’s capable of as an actor.”

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