How Anna Karina (RIP) Became the Mesmerizing Face of the French New Wave

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 WomanMy 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Agnès Varda’s Les Fiancés Du Pont Mac­don­ald: A Silent Com­ic Short Star­ring Jean-Luc Godard & Anna Kari­na

How the French New Wave Changed Cin­e­ma: A Video Intro­duc­tion to the Films of Godard, Truf­faut & Their Fel­low Rule-Break­ers

An Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Luc Godard’s Inno­v­a­tive Film­mak­ing Through Five Video Essays

How Jean-Luc Godard Lib­er­at­ed Cin­e­ma: A Video Essay on How the Great­est Rule-Break­er in Film Made His Name

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.

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