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A Woman is a Woman: A Chat with Anna Karina

How does one talk to a genuine icon of the cinema—not just an ordinary actor, actress or filmmaker, but the kind of divine screen presence who is more deserving of having candles lit in their honor than peppered with the usual array of questions? That is the quandary one finds themselves in when presented with the prospect of speaking with the legendary Anna Karina. Her half-century-plus career has seen her work with such notable filmmakers as George Cukor, Jacques Rivette, Raul Ruiz, Agnes Varda, Rainer Werner Fassbender, Luchino Visconti and Jonathan Demme, collaborate on music with Serge Gainsbourg, pen three novels and even write, direct and star in a pair of her own films. However, she might be best known—as long as there are people around to talk about movies—as the actress who essentially served as a muse for Jean-Luc Godard, appearing in seven feature films he made during his first and most astonishing burst of filmmaking and becoming his wife for a time as well.

Among the films she did with him during this period were favorites like “A Woman is a Woman” (1961), an off-beat musical-comedy about a stripper who wants to become a mother and doesn’t care whether the father is her reluctant boyfriend or his best friend; “Vivre Sa Vie” (1962) in which she plays a young shopgirl who abandons her husband and child to become a prostitute, mistakenly believing that she can sell her body and retain her soul; “Bande à Part” ("Band of Outsiders") (1964), a gangster film spoof/homage/deconstruction in which she and a pair of suitors (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) goof around for a while (including two of the most famous scenes in the Godard canon, the one where the three dance the Madison and the one where they try to break the record time for running through the Louvre) before embarking on a half-assed robbery inspired mostly by the crime movies they love. 

These films, not to mention her other features with Godard, “Le Petit Soldat” (1961), “Pierrot Le Fou” (1965), “Alphaville” (1965) and “Made in USA” (1966), are movies that are just as fresh, vital and thrilling to watch today as they were in their first release. A lot of that comes from Karina’s mesmerizing screen presence and often underrated acting prowess. Her performance in “Vivre Sa Vie,” to cite one example, is such an extraordinary work that words can barely do justice to it—her eventual descent into despair is heartbreaking to watch, especially in the moments when she lets her true emotions pierce the wall she has built around herself. As a result, the tragic ending remains one of the most shattering moments ever captured on film.

Now there is a new restoration of “Band of Outsiders,” which is arguably the most popular of the films she did with Godard (at least in America) and certainly the most accessible. To help promote it, Karina is on a rare publicity tour—last week she presented the film as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles. She has since ventured to New York, where she will be making appearances at various locations for screenings of her films that will culminate on May 6, when she will appear at New York’s Film Forum to do a Q&A following a screening of “Band of Outsiders," which will also serve as the kickoff to a week-long retrospective of all her collaborations with Godard. To publicize this event, I was given the rare privilege of getting on the phone with her for a few minutes. While the time scheduled for our conversation wound up getting chopped nearly in half, that was still enough time for her to explain how a young girl from Denmark went on to become one of the true leading lights of the silver screen ... 


"I always wanted to be an actress, ever since I was a little girl. The very first picture that I did, the director came up to me on the street—I was 14 at the time—and asked me if I would be in a short film that he was doing called 'Pigen og Skoene,' which means 'The Girl with the Shoes,' which is a funny title but that is how it is. He asked my mother and she signed the contract  and I did this little short film and nobody heard about it for a couple of years. Finally it showed in Cannes in 1959, I think, and it got a prize for being the most romantic short film. It was made by Ib Schemes.

I got a telegram—there were no smartphones or anything like that back then—asking if I would come to an office and meet Jean-Luc Godard. I went there and he said that he was doing a film and he wanted to know if I wanted to act in it. I said 'Well, what do I have to do?' and he said, 'Well, it is a girl taking her clothes off.' I told him that I wasn’t taking my clothes off and I left. That was for the film 'Breathless,' which was made with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Time goes by, maybe three or three and a half months, and I get another telegram asking if I would like to come to the office to see Jean-Luc Godard about a film. I asked if I would have to take my clothes off. He said no and that it was for a part in his new film, 'Le Petit Soldat.' I asked what it was about and he said that it was a political film that dealt with the war in Algeria. I asked 'What do I have to do—talk about politics?' and he said 'No, not at all—don’t worry about it. Just come tomorrow and sign your contract.' I told him that I couldn’t come in and sign my contract because I was underage—at that time, you had to be 21—and he said that it wasn’t a problem because I could come in with my mother or father. I had no father and my mother lived in Copenhagen. He said 'Phone your mother and tell her to come here—we’ll pay for the ticket.' 

I phoned my mother, who I had not spoken to for maybe a year, and told her that I was going to play the lead in a political film with a guy named Jean-Luc Godard—'Breathless' had not come out yet but people were already saying that it was the greatest film of the year—and she said 'What are you talking about? You must be out of your mind!' and then hangs up. I phone back again and said 'Mother, it is true—I am doing this political film and I am playing the main part but you have to come to France to sign the contract because I cannot be in the film if you don’t.' Finally she came and of course, she signed the contract. We went to Switzerland to make the film and we fell in love little by little. It was the longest time that he ever spent making a movie—I think it took about 3 1/2 months—because it kept stopping and starting up again. Little by little, we fell in love.

You have to understand that 'Le Petit Soldat' was a totally forbidden film at that time. A producer did see it at a private screening and he was doing a comedy ['Tonight or Never'] and he wanted me to play a little part in it. After a while, Godard was going to do 'A Woman is a Woman' with Sami Frey and and another actress in the leading lady part but they couldn’t do it and so he had to find somebody else. I was not supposed to play the lead in it in the beginning—I originally had one of the smaller parts. With 'Tonight or Never,' I tried very hard to lose my Danish accent and when Jean-Luc saw me in that part, he said 'Why don’t you do 'A Woman is a Woman'?' I did it with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Claude Brialy and won the Best Actress prize in Berlin and I was still under 21. Then Jean-Luc and I got married. 

I have to tell you that we never had any scripts. Jean-Luc never wrote a script in his life. He would write the dialogue that morning before shooting. Of course, he told us a little bit what the scene would be like but we never really knew what we were going to do. We got the dialogue in the morning about five minutes before the shooting and that could be very hard work once in a while. For me, because I was not French-born, I would have like more time to look at the lines. Of course, we had a lot of time to rehearse because at that time, it was difficult to do a lot with the cameras and the focus—we had to hit these big marks that were on the floor because if not, we would be out of focus. We had this fantastic cameraman, Raoul Coutard, who was so great. For me, he was the best cameraman that I ever worked with and I really mean it because he could do anything with it. 

[As for 'Bande a Part'], I am very proud of that one and that Quentin Tarantino named his production company “A Band Apart” after it. Teenagers all around the world like that one a lot. People from 15-35 from all over love it. I’ve gone to Australia and South Korea and all around with it and people love it." 


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