Appreciation: Anna Karina, more than Jean-Luc Godard’s muse, helped define the French New Wave
If Anna Karina had done nothing more than dance on-screen, she would be one of the lasting treasures of the cinema.
Her most famous dance remains as fresh and vivid now as it was 55 years ago. Midway through “Band of Outsiders” (1964), Jean-Luc Godard’s exquisite, movie-mad dream of a youthful crime caper, Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey give themselves over to an impromptu Madison. Commandeering the floor of a crowded café, they snap, clap and turn to the music several times over, with a swinging precision that feels marvelously unrehearsed. The camera watches, unblinking and enraptured: They may be hopelessly lost, these three beautiful young fools, but for now they’re just happily lost in the moment, a fleeting one that will nonetheless ensure their immortality.
Karina, who died Saturday in Paris at age 79, danced her way through a few of the seven films she made with Godard during what became, for many reasons, one of the most storied director-star pairings in cinema history. There was the number she performed while crooning a Michel Legrand song in Godard’s glorious musical-comedy riff “A Woman Is a Woman” (1961), her face bathed in bright, primary-hued projector beams, or her lovely dance in the sunlight with Jean-Paul Belmondo in “Pierrot le Fou” (1965). There was her jukebox-accompanied swirl around a billiard hall in the wrenching “Vivre Sa Vie” (1962), her every carefree move eliciting only annoyance or indifference from the place’s patrons.
She didn’t have to dance, of course, to magnetize the camera’s attention. An avatar of French cool, she had only to light a cigarette. Or brush her hair in front of a mirror, as she does in the famous lover’s interrogation scene in Godard’s “Le Petit Soldat” (the scene that gave us his famous maxim, “Photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times per second”). Or she could sit and stare at a movie screen in “Vivre Sa Vie,” blinking back tears as she watched the great Falconetti in “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
We often speak admiringly of a performer’s screen presence or charisma. Karina possessed something more: flinty intelligence and deadpan wit, dark feline eyes that could project playfulness and melancholy without her saying a word. She incarnated both a matter-of-fact toughness and an expressive glamour worthy of a silent screen star.
Anna Karina, the French New Wave actress, made seven films with Jean-Luc Godard, including the 1961 ‘Une Femme Est Une Femme (A Woman Is a Woman).’
The glamour came to her naturally; so did the toughness. Born Hanne Karin Bayer in 1940 in Denmark, where she endured a harsh, neglected childhood, she hitchhiked to Paris as a 17-year-old and lived on the streets before finding work as a model. Her early moments with Godard are well documented: his discovery of her in a series of Palmolive commercials, his attempt to recruit her for “Breathless” (she refused to do a nude scene) and then his decision in 1960 to cast her in “Le Petit Soldat.” By the time shooting wrapped on that film, they had fallen in love, and for the next several years — and their famously tempestuous marriage lasted four of them — she was his partner on the screen and off.
The word “muse,” with its sexist implications of control and subservience, is often frowned upon now, especially when applied to an actor who became a French New Wave icon in her own right. But Karina herself didn’t always reject the term out of hand, to judge by some of the interviews she gave later in life. Whether you think of her as a muse, a collaborator, a fellow auteur or a partner in aesthetic crime, her style emerged and evolved alongside his. She stepped in just as Godard was starting to reach into his bottomless bag of tricks, to discover and push past the boundaries of the medium. In film after film, Karina held the center of a frame that was always shifting, lending style, beauty and emotional gravity to his restless play with form and ideas.
Endless scrutiny of their movies has not diluted their pleasures — or dispelled their mysteries. Is their shared oeuvre an enigmatic fun house of meta-mirrors or a straightforward record of a doomed love story playing out behind the scenes and in front of the camera? “A Woman Is a Woman” is an unabashedly besotted valentine from a filmmaker to his star; their last film together, “Made in U.S.A.” (1966), with its innumerable yearning closeups of Karina, has the bitter finality of a farewell. Real-life heartache seems to blur into doomy romanticism in “Alphaville,” the 1965 science-fiction drama Godard made shortly after their divorce; in it, Karina plays the prisoner of a mind-controlling dystopia, a state that has rendered her unable to love.
The movie that may tell us the most, at least insofar as it is widely assumed to be about their marriage, is “Contempt,” from which Karina herself is pointedly absent. But in an interview with The Times’ Mark Olsen in 2016, when she visited Los Angeles to attend retrospective screenings of her films with Godard, the actor gently pushed back against the idea that you could read their relationship like a book simply by watching their films. “Our personal life never went into when he was doing his films,” she said. “When we were doing the films, we were not together that much. He wanted to be alone to write.”
She also seemed to accept, with equanimity and gratitude, the undying popularity of those films, even when they couldn’t help but overshadow her own impressive later career. Karina went on to direct two films of her own, “Vivre Ensemble” (1973) and “Victoria” (2008). She continued singing and wrote four novels. As an actor, she worked with filmmakers including Jacques Rivette (“La Religieuse”), Luchino Visconti (“The Stranger”), Roger Vadim (“La Ronde”) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“Chinese Roulette”).
The last time I saw her on the big screen was in “La Religieuse,” Rivette’s brilliant, controversial 1966 adaptation of Denis Diderot’s novel, on the occasion of its reissue earlier this year. In the film, banned from cinemas for years for its blood-boiling indictment of religious totalitarianism, Karina stars as a young 18th-century woman forced into a Catholic convent against her will. She is brutalized, condemned as a heretic and sexually preyed upon, and she suffers horribly — and beautifully — from start to finish. She isn’t the first Anna Karina character you think of, which only makes her all the more extraordinary. But the performance she gives may be its own mesmerizing rejoinder to Falconetti in “Joan of Arc,” the one that leaves you not just blissed out or transported but devastated, awestruck, in the dark.
Only good movies
Get the Indie Focus newsletter, Mark Olsen's weekly guide to the world of cinema.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.