Merci beaucoup à mon ami Jo for inviting me to participate in the Anti-Damsel Blogathon; hosted by The Last Drive In and Movies Silently. With seventy-eight acting credits to her name Anna Karina has worked with some of the world’s finest directors including Luchino Visconti, Michel Deville, Jacques Rivette and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The work of this talented and accomplished actress stands on its own. That said, there is one director whom Karina has become best associated with; that director is Jean-Luc Godard. It is Anna Karina’s collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard that will be the focus of my piece. You really cannot speak of the actress or director’s careers without mentioning the other. Karina acted in seven feature length films directed by Godard from 1961 to 1966; Une Femme est une Femme, Vivre Sa Vie, Le Petit Soldat, Bande à Part, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou and Made in U.S.A. After seeing Karina in a bubble bath in a Palmolive advertisement Godard contacted her and offered her a small part in his film Breathless. Learning she would have to appear nude she refused the role. A short time later Godard offered Karina the lead role in the film Le Petit Soldat. Under twenty-one and still considered a minor Godard had to arrange for Anna’s estranged Danish mother to be flown in to sign the contract. In an interview on the French television show Cine-Panorama in 1962 Karina is asked about answering an advertisement placed by Jean-Luc Godard to secure her first role with the director. Apparently Godard had placed an ad for an upcoming film looking for “an actress and a girlfriend”. Godard as previously mentioned had in fact contacted Karina after seeing her Palmolive commercial. After more than a few snarky comments from peers Karina queried Jean-Luc about these insults who informed her of his advertisement. Karina was completely unaware of this ad when she agreed to take a role in his film and was clearly horrified. Karina did not only become Godard’s girlfriend the two were married March 3, 1961. Anna Karina co-founded (along with Jean-Luc Godard) the production company Anouchka Films. Their film-making union has endured time and have become classics of New Wave French cinema. Their marriage on the other hand ended in 1967 not long after their last film-making collaboration. Having seen and enjoyed twenty-one of Karina’s turns as an actress there was something very special and unique about those films she made with Godard. There was a certain magic, a natural ease to her movements, her facial expressions; Godard seemed to capture a fluidity that I am not sure I have seen another director duplicate. The vast majority of the Karina-Godard collaborations are on Criterion which have been graced with some amazing bonus materials, including interviews. I have watched several interviews with Ms. Karina where she speaks mainly on working with Godard in the capacity of director divulging little of their personal life together. Naturally Karina does make subtle references like in a recent interview specifically made for the Criterion release of Bande à Part where she states she would swear up a storm at home to get Godard’s attention. She mentions when they were making a film his interest in her was unending but eludes while at home only shocking him would get his attention. In Godard’s 1963 film Contempt Brigitte Bardot’s character utters a barrage of foul language in response to a comment from Michel Piccoli’s character. I think it is fair to say that there was mutual inspiration and respect between Godard and Karina; each bringing out the best in the other’s work. This project is really about Anna Karina as she is my anti-damsel of choice. Whether she is playing a double-crossing femme fatale, a small time criminal or a prostitute, Anna Karina always brings her “A” game. Karina commands attention regardless of the role and insists you laugh, cry and shake your fist with her. A natural performer, a style icon and one of the most distinctive, creative and adept actresses to grace cinema; classic or otherwise.
Une Femme est une Femme (A Woman is a Woman) (1961)
In Une Femme est une Femme Anna Karina plays Angela an exotic dancer who desperately wants a child. Her lover Emile refuses her pleas and she eventually cheats on him with his best friend. Instead of ending the relationship it seems to strengthen it as Emile eventually gives in. While Angela is involved with two men in the story I would not exactly say this is a love triangle. Angela does not seem to have any emotional ties to Emile’s best friend Alfred. The film co-stars Jean-Claude Brialy and Jean-Paul Belmondo; but Karina’s Angela is definitely the focal point of the film and constantly commands the camera and the audiences’ attention. Angela is a willful young woman who does whatever is required in order to not only survive but thrive in her enviroment. Stubborn, contemptuous, determined, eccentric and entirely lovable. Refusing to talk during a fight with Emile she begins to pull books from the bookshelf and points to the words in lieu of speaking. The equally adamant Emile plays along. Despite her shenanigans the cheeky Angela clearly loves Emile and while sleeping with one’s best friend is a harsh way to make a point it is also tenacious; and tenacity is definitely one of Angela’s character traits. Solid performances, good chemistry, appealing visuals but Karina definitely steals the show in this one.
Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live) (1962)
In Vivre Sa Vie Anna Karina plays a young woman who leaves her husband and child to pursue an acting career. The unsuccessful attempt at this career lands her in a record store barely able to scratch by and unable to pay her rent. She meets a man named Raoul through a friend who suggests she becomes a prostitute. The film is broken into twelve parts or “chapters” which represent the pinnacle moments in Nana’s life over a period of six months leading up to and following her stint as a prostitute. Vivre Sa Vie is the most heart-breaking and tragic of Karina and Godards collaborations. The young and attractive Nana seems doomed from the start. Her sober and business-like approach to the selling of her body evoked a great deal of empathy from me. Godard uses the quote “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself” He comments in a an issue of Film Culture in 1962 “Indeed, Nana, like the song in Max Ophuls’s Lola Montes, is gracious, which means that she has grace and will be able to safeguard her soul while selling her body. In other words, Vivre Sa Vie will prove Montaigne’s saying that you must only lend yourself to others but give yourself to yourself.” Karina’s Nana is young and naive early in the film and her transition from amateur prostitute to professional happens frightfully quick. One of the film’s most iconic moments happens when Nana after being refused entry to her apartment for not paying her rent goes to see Dreyer’s Joan of Arc with her last few dollars. We watch both the film and Karina reacting to the film. In Godard’s world film is art and it is also life. Karina gives a sad, beautiful and captivating performance that I think is one of her best.
Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier) (1963)
In Le Petit SOldat Anna Karina plays Veronica Dreyer; love interest of French revolutionary member Bruno Forestier. Bruno has been ordered to kill a National Liberation Front of Algeria member, meanwhile Veronica is a sympathizer with ties to the group. A love affair that threatens both of their lives. A political thriller love story with a Godardian twist. We often see Veronica through Bruno’s eyes; captivating, mysterious, sad and simultaneously peaceful and dangerous. The titular “Little Soldier” of the film is Bruno played by Michel Subor a revolutionary who doesn’t really seem at all sure what he stands for. His priority through the film seems to be acquiring passports for Veronica and himself to escape to Brazil. The film is heavily political and at times tragic but a thread of humor is sewn throughout the narrative. Although Le Petit Soldat is listed as 1963 it is the first film Godard did with Anna Karina. A follow up to his most commercially successful film Breathless. Karina gives an outstanding performance in this early role of her career. Karina’s Veronica drifts as if she is a ghost merely haunting the rooms she enters. Quiet but intense never showing her hand, keeping all that meet her questioning. She is young yet seems to possess a soul much older than her own. A past full of tragedy has harden her gentle form.
Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders) (1964)
In Bande à Part Anna Karina plays Odile a young woman living with her Aunt. She meets two men at school, Franz and Arthur that attend the same English class. She tells the men about a stash of money kept at her aunt’s villa and the pair of men decide to plan a heist. The love triangle is a pinnacle part of the story in Bande à Part. Both men have strong feeling for the lovely but awkward Odile. Bande à Part was the first Jean-Luc Godard film I seen. I was absolutely in love with this film in my college years. Now having seen seventeen of the director’s films I have to admit, for me, it pales in comparison to his other work. In an interview specifically made for the film’s Criterion DVD release Karina states she was paramount in creating this particular character. She suggested Odile be a student, uncomfortable in her skin, old-fashioned and naive. Odile is all of these things yet she is keenly aware that she is attractive and does use it to her advantage. Odile becomes somewhat doleful by the end of it all declaring in the finale “I’m disgusted with life”. Karina never gave a bad performance in her career but Odile is not one of my favourite characters. The character is played exactly as Karina and Godard agreed she should be but frankly I would have liked Odile to be sassier and more assertive.
In Alphaville Anna Karina plays Natacha Von Braun; it is the only Godard film she is in where she is not the focal point. The film is about Outlands secret agent Lemmy Caution played by the fabulous Eddie Constantine. Under the guise of being a newspaper journalist he comes to Alphaville with a mission. Caution is to find a missing agent, kill Alphaville creator Professor Von Braun and destroy Alpha 60 the computer that controls Alphaville. With the help of Natacha Von Braun, a programmer and daughter of Alphaville’s creator he wastes no time working towards the completion of his mission. Serial numbers stamped on human beings, emotions banned, poetry outlawed; Alphaville’s enviroment reflects an Orwellian estethic. Lemmy Caution with his trenchcoat, instamatic camera and Ford Mustang seems particularly old-fashioned in this futuristic world. Lemmy falls in love with Natacha, who does not know what love is, but inevitable learns. I had seen Alphaville years ago and remembered practically nothing of it. On a rewatch it has become one of my favourite Godard films! Alphaville is funny, strange, daunting and clever with superb performances. The mood and the visuals are one of a kind even in Godard’s unique film world. I loved the way characters would nod yes but say no and vice versa! I was also excited to see the great Howard Vernon who plays Professor Von Braun in the film. I cannot say enough good things about Eddie Constantine’s spot on performance but this is a piece on Anna Karina. And yes, like every single nook and cranny of this thing Karina gives a pitch perfect performance. Constantine and Karina have great chemistry together. It is easy to see how Natacha would be intrigued by Lemmy Caution in this ugly emotionless society. Natacha is an intelligent woman and thanks to her society’s emotion ban she has no bonds with anyone; including her father whom she comments early in the film she has never met. The dangers of suppression become clearly defined for her as she discovers where she comes from and what lies outside of the bubble she has been kept in.
Pierrot le Fou (Pierrot Goes Wild) (1965)
In Pierre le Fou Anna Karina plays Marianne and shares equal screentime with the formidable Jean-Paul Belmondo who plays Ferdinand. Ferdinand, in an unhappy marriage and recently fired from his job runs away with the babysitter; a former girlfriend named Marianne. Marianne nicknames Ferdinand Pierrot “sad clown” which he hates but she insists on calling him anyway. He soon discovers that Marianne is being chased by gangsters and the two are forced into exile. Living life on the run begins to take its toll on the couple and their relationship in the most hilarious and insane ways! This film is so wacky! I think it is Godard’s funniest. I also think Marianne is Karina’s best Godard role and one of my personal faves of her career. Marianne is a take no shit, sassy, self-assured woman of the first order. She is also a criminal, a bad-ass, seriously sarcastic and a brutally honest vixen. Pierrot le Fou made me laugh regularly from beginning to end. Ferdinand and Marianne do some crazy shit including driving a car into the ocean. Many of my favourite parts are Marianne’s snide and sarcastic comments to Ferdinand. The ending just kills me! Although Marianne’s contribution towards the finale is not a huge surprise as her character would suggest she is full of surprises and capable of anything. Contempt and Pierrot le Fou are the two Godard films I always recommend to people who are not familiar with his films. Both are visually dazzling. The colors leap from the screen as do the Godardian antics. Both films are hilarious in my opinion and have lead characters that have strong chemistry. Above all both films feature two of my most favourite and unforgettable performances by women Brigitte Bardot’s Camille and Anna Karina’s Marianne.
The following is taken from an interview Anna Karina did with Maurice Seveno at the Venice Film Festival where Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou was nominated for a Golden Lion. This was included as bonus material with the Criterion DVD.
Made in U.S.A (1966)
In Made in U.S.A Anna Karina plays Paula, a political writer who travels to Atlantic City to meet a colleague and lover only to learn he is dead. Paula conducts her own investigation and encounters all manner of criminal types and dead bodies along the way. Politics, as you have likely discerned at this point of the article was a regular theme of Godard’s work in the sixties. Another common theme used in his films is pop culture. There are countless references made to other films, songs, books, poetry, comics and artists in every single one of his films. Besides the film taking place in Atlantic City New Jersey there are numerous mentions of Americana including pulp fiction, comic books, films and Disney. There are even several visual references, perhaps the reason it is called Made in U.S.A? I read in a review before seeing the film that Godard intended Made in U.S.A as a remake of The Big Sleep one, a classic film noir directed by Howard Hawks. It is a pretty loose interpretation but I think I get where he was going. We learn that Paula had not seen Richard for a while. Despite Richard hooking up with another woman, Paula feels a certain loyalty to him and risks her life to find out what happened to him. It is clear from the start that Paula is no stranger to trouble. Packing heat and knocking back the hard liquor she renders a man unconscious in her hotel room in the film’s first scene. Karina’s Paula is a tough, fearless, smart woman who refuses to be intimidated by anyone. Made in U.S.A is a visually impressive film whose eye-popping colors seemed to have been arranged with a purpose. Karina’s wardrobe blended with the enviroment seamlessly. Another solid and memorable performance from Karina playing a strong-willed and intelligent woman albeit less humorous than her Marianne character in Pierrot le Fou the two women do have similarites.
In a career full of memorable and superb performances I regret only covering Anna Karina’s Jean-Luc Godard library. Although covering Karina’s entire impressive career would be a daunting task; it may very well be one I will take on in the future. There is no doubt that Jean-Luc Godard brought out the best in Anna Karina. Karina for her part clearly inspired Godard through this period. Godard’s most admired and I think best work was during the sixties. In a time when the entire world was going through immense changes Godard was helping to change the face of cinema.
Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard on the set of Alphaville.