If the French New Wave hadn’t crashed over cinema in the 1950s and 60s, could any of the film movements since have come about? Without auteurs like François Truffaut, Agnès Varda, and most of all Jean-Luc Godard, could the French New Wave itself have happened? And without Anna Karina, would Jean-Luc Godard have become Jean-Luc Godard? Though he did make Breathless, his first and most enduring feature, without Karina, it wasn’t for lack of desire: when he tried to bring the still-teenaged Danish actress onboard the project after spotting her in a soap commercial, she turned down his offer because it would involve a nude scene. But she made less of an objection to political themes, demonstrated by her agreement to participate in Godard’s next movie, the controversial Le Petit Soldat.
In total, Karina would appear in eight of Godard’s films, including A Woman Is a Woman, My Life to Live, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, and Pierrot le Fou — more than enough to make her the nouvelle vague‘s most captivating screen presence. This status has transcended culture and time, as evidenced by “Anna Karina’s Guide to Being Mesmerizing,” the short tribute video by the British Film Institute at the top of the post.
To Godard she was first an actress, then a muse; soon she became his wife, and then nearly the mother of his child. Godard, l’amour, la poésie, the above documentary on Godard and Karina’s professional and personal relationship, argues that her miscarriage became the implicit subject of My Life to Live. From then on their relationship, always described as “tumultuous,” deteriorated; they divorced in 1965, the year before their final collaboration, Made in USA.
“I can’t speak badly of him,” Karina says of Godard in a clip of an interview recorded much later. “He was my teacher, my love, my husband, my Pygmalion.” In her work with Godard, writes New Yorker film critic and Godard biographer Richard Brody, “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.” Throughout her career, she was thus “marked by the distinctiveness of those early performances, by their difference from all other performances, and she became a living emblem not only of herself but of the French New Wave and of the spirit of the nineteen-sixties over all.” As Brody notes, Karina went on to work with such cinematic luminaries as Luchino Visconti, Jacques Rivette, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Raúl Ruiz, and Jonathan Demme.
She also became a filmmaker herself, directing Living Together in 1973 and the French-Canadian musical road movie Victoria in 2006, and in that same span of time published four novels as well. But since her death last month at the age of 79, it is Karina’s work with Godard in the early 1960s to which cinephiles have instinctively returned and most lovingly celebrated. Both she and he, each in their distinctive artistic fashion, embodied a short time in cinema when all rules seemed broken and all possibilities open. In Godard, l’amour, la poésie, the critic Jean Douchet, a colleague of Godard’s at Cahiers du cinéma, puts it differently: “They met, they fell in love, they broke up. End of story. They were a couple like many others, but it’s true that Anna Karina is magnificent in that period with Godard.” And as the French New Wave recedes farther into the distance, that magnificence will only intensify.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.