She still has it. That spark that draws you in to her wide, dark eyes. It’s been 50 years since Anna Karina ran around the streets of Paris being filmed by her husband, Jean-Luc Godard.
I interviewed her (above) the way Godard cinematographer Raoul Coutard liked to do: shooting in an undressed room with natural light and sound. Would I be so enchanted if I didn’t remember Karina’s seven 60s performances as a young woman, from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Le Petit Soldat” (1960) to “Made in USA” (1966), their last film together? I suspect I would.
When I was running around Manhattan in the early seventies, my high school pal Arlene and I inhaled the French New Wave at the Thalia and The New Yorker, from Francois Truffaut’s emotional Antoine Doinel stories to the more bracing and provocative Godard. As Karina told me before the screening of the new restored “Band of Outsiders” (1964) at L.A.’s TCM Classic Film Festival, Godard tried to cast her in his first feature “Breathless” (1959), but she was unwilling to go nude for such a small part.
“Band of Outsiders” opens Friday at Los Angeles’s Cinefamily and New York’s Film Forum; “Anna & Jean-Luc,” a one-week festival of their films together, will be shown as a sidebar.
Karina remembered getting to the set every morning with no idea what they were going to film that day; there was no script. Godard would pay someone to do a screenplay that he would never touch, just to get the movie made. He’d throw it away, Karina said. Godard would hand the actors daily pages. He didn’t tell anyone how to do anything. And he and Coutard seemed to have a non-verbal understanding, as well, as they followed Karina’s pellmell sprints through the Louvre and the Paris suburb of Joinville, or tracked the well-choreographed “The Madison” (which Quentin Tarantino referenced in “Pulp Fiction”) as the three dancers seem lost in their own reveries. “‘The Madison’ we three weeks rehearsed in a nightclub,” she recalled. “Brasseur and Frey didn’t know how to dance. A choreographer had to teach us how to do the steps. We didn’t know people were going to do it!”
For Godard, “his script was inside his head,” she said. “He would write the dialogues every day. There was no script. We got the dialogue just before shooting and had to learn it very quickly. People thought we were improvising, but it was written down; we understood what we were playing. With people you don’t always have to talk. It was interesting, because we never knew the ending!”
Coutard was “one of the greatest cameraman in the world, he could do anything,” she said. “”Alphaville’ was not the same as the other films; it always was just right, he didn’t talk too much with Jean-Luc, he didn’t really direct us. We were already in the situation, it was natural feeling. We knew what we were doing. I was so different every time, sometimes I wasn’t recognized… It was a gift to have all those different parts. We didn’t realize they would become so famous. I am very moved by that.”
She couldn’t accept the role until she coaxed her estranged mother to come to Paris and sign papers allowing her daughter, who was a minor still under 21, to act in the film. Karina went on to star in “A Woman is a Woman” (for which she won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival) and “Pierrot le Fou” opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo, as well as “Vivre Sa Vie” and my favorite, the sci-fi mood-poem “Alphaville,” opposite Eddie Constantine. Godard and Karina married in 1961 and divorced in 1965. (He later married “La Chinoise” star Anne Wiazemski; their marriage is the subject of a planned film. )
Post-Godard, Karina pursued a singing career and landed two hits written by Serge Gainsbourg. She wrote four novels and is penning a memoir. She also acted in Luchino Visconti’s “The Stranger,” Jacques Rivette’s “The Nun,” George Cukor’s “Justine,” Tony Richardson’s “Laughter in the Dark,” and R.W. Fassbinder’s “Chinese Roulette,” among other films, before directing the movie “Living Together,” which played Critics’ Week at Cannes. She came to Los Angeles accompanied by her husband of 34 years, “Highlander” director Dennis Berry, who was briefly married to “Breathless” star Jean Seberg.
But it’s the Godard films that audiences still remember. It moves Karina that young people respond to these movies made so long ago. “It’s great,” she said. “Sometimes people didn’t like the films at all, they’d really hate the films. I see the young people in Japan or Australia or wherever, between 15 and 35, they love the films.”