Anna Karina’s rehearsal for her first major scene with director Jean-Luc Godard ended early. The scene was for the film The Little Soldier (1960), in which the male lead photographs Karina’s character in her apartment, asking her questions and telling her to move around so he can get at her “truth.” Godard intervened and took the mock interrogation one step further, demanding to know when she had first had sex and how many men she’d slept with. She didn’t know whether the director was asking her or her character, and Karina’s face flashed from white rage to scarlet embarrassment. “Ça ne vous regarde pas,” she replied in hesitant French, It’s none of your business. The line is included in the final cut.
This exchange between Karina and Godard launched one of the most important partnerships in the history of cinema. A year later, they married, and Paris Match called Karina “the newlywed of the New Wave.” She went on to star in six more of Godard’s feature films, becoming the icon of a movement. Her body served as the visual anchor for his films, and her own language often appeared word for word in his scripts. Was there anything about her that was not his? Godard didn’t think so. When he worked on a tight budget, Karina went unpaid for her work as an actress, with the justification that they lived together.
The kind of intellectual attracted to Godard’s cinema has often remained uninterested in Karina, beyond the superficial planes of her face. In the catalogue of the National Library of France, there are 152 critical studies taking on his work, and seem to be none devoted to Karina. In the books on Godard, she is featured exclusively during his so-called Karina Years, disappearing after their last collaboration together, Made in U.S.A. (1966). There does exist a rigorous school of feminist criticism that takes on the representations of female characters in New Wave cinema (notably the work of Geneviève Sellier), but this line of inquiry considers the women in these films through the symbolic violence enacted against them rather than considering their personhood.
In the obituaries written after Karina’s passing on December 14 last year, critics have attempted to rehabilitate her life story. But these write-ups consistently refer to Godard to do so. Karina is cited explaining how she taught him not to slam doors; he is quoted calling her a “woman of action.” I started writing this piece with every intention of “finding” Karina, but fell into the same trap in my first draft: I occluded Karina’s voice by looking for it in the images Godard made of her.
The story of Karina, born Hanne Karin Blarke Bayer in 1940 in Solbjerg, a suburb on Denmark’s east coast, has been turned into a fairy tale. Abandoned by her father and neglected by her mother, she found solace in the pizzazz of dance numbers and American jazz, often going to the movies at the invitation of her mother’s boyfriends. At the age of seventeen, she hitchhiked from Copenhagen to Paris to follow her dream of becoming a performer. Her first break: a modeling agent spotted her at Les Deux Magots, the Left Bank café of the Tout-Paris. “She was really dirty,” the agent later said. “But she had an incredible gaze that seemed to devour everything around her.” Soon after, she landed the cover of Elle. Coco Chanel gave her the screen name, or so the legend goes, the singsong ANN-a kar-IN-a a syllable off from Tolstoy’s heroine, as if she’d go on to live a life out of a Russian saga.
Her modeling career was short-lived because she couldn’t sit still. Her most famous cinematic moments are in her gestures: the improvised swing solo in My Life to Live (1962), the run through the Louvre and the Madison dance in Band of Outsiders (1964), her rock-skipping as she asks, “What can I do?” in Pierrot le fou (1965). The pleasure in her movements seems to belong to her above anyone else. If the existentialists had declared that every generation would need to learn to love anew, Karina was their object lesson. She seemed to act with and through her fantasies, even those informed by B movies and the discs on her record player. If her characters aspire to sing and dance in Broadway musicals, it’s because she did, too—though Godard would often lampoon the ambition and make her sing in parody.
Many New Wave actresses lacked formal training, their inexperience lending itself to the freshness of the avant-garde, but they also tended to hail from the high Parisian bourgeoisie. The public images of Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and Anne Wiazemsky depended on the decorum of their upbringing. Karina, on the other hand, came from nothing. She spoke French hesitantly, with an accent, and never settled into the veneer of a persona. In the slippage between Karina and her characters, there seemed to be the promise that the self was the performance, and just as invented. Her fidgety mannerisms and schoolgirl earnestness made the effort of acting visible. It revealed the masquerade of the New Wave model of femininity: though it claimed to be more natural than its predecessors, it, too, had been dreamed up by men.
Three of the seven feature films Karina made for Godard end with her in the passenger seat of a car, a man at the wheel, as they head into “the sunset.” In one of them, she ends up in bed. In the others, her character dies. These have always been my least favorite. I see them as willful acts on the part of Godard to finish her off so that she would not outlive his camera. In The Little Soldier, the character that serves as his alter ego flatly states that women shouldn’t live past the age of twenty-five. The pronouncement would serve as an eerie harbinger: when Karina was twenty-five, their collaboration fell apart. They divorced in 1965.
He never filmed her in the buff (only body parts framed in bits and pieces) as he did with other young actresses, such as Bardot in Contempt (1963). His interest in Karina was first piqued by her refusal to undress; he had wanted her to play a minor nude role in Breathless (1960), which she turned down. But even if Karina always kept her clothes on, she gets beaten up, tortured, and killed in many of his films. Godard seemed to think of it as war. “The cinema does not query the beauty of a woman,” he wrote during his tenure as a critic. “It only doubts her heart, records her perfidy.”
Karina took notice, even if she still played along. In the last scene of My Life to Live, her character, Nana, is traded by her pimp. When he stiffs the deal, he uses her body to protect his; she is shot, shot again, then almost run over with the getaway car. The original script featured what might have been called a happy ending. Nana was supposed to earn more with her new boss, and find love. When Karina learned of the Godard’s revision, she tried to commit suicide, her second attempt during their marriage.
Karina’s directorial debut, Living Together (1973), can be seen as a pointed response to My Life to Live. There’s the echo of the title, even more pronounced in the French: “Vivre sa vie”/“Vivre ensemble”; “together” critiques the solipsism of Godard’s heroes. As he did in his film, Karina organized the plot in tableaux, or chapter-like moments. She plays an aspiring but failed actress—just like Nana—in an ironic nod to her then-knockout career. The last shot follows her leaving work as a salesgirl. It’s another reference to My Life to Live, where Nana tries working at a record shop. The difference is that in Living Together, Karina’s character strides alone and very much alive through the streets of Paris to her infant son at home.
If there was a message in her film’s narrative, Karina also seemed to launch a manifesto in the politics of its style. In My Life to Live, Godard interspersed the opening credits with obsessive close-ups of Karina’s face. She applies the same tactic at the beginning of Living Together, but reverses the usual gendered power dynamics of the image. Rather than using the camera like a voyeur—the man looking, the woman looked at—the credit sequence moves from the male lead to Karina and back again, as if recording the mutual exchange of their look. “I wanted to show that it is difficult to find somebody to live with,” said Karina in an interview just after the film’s release. Most of the scenes are more cringe-inducing than feel-good. There’s a raw corporeality in the open-mouthed eating, alcohol abuse, and the couple’s interactions, which range from tender to violent.
With Living Together, Karina became one of the first major actresses turned auteurs. At the time, she observed that since the invention of the movies, 160 women had worked as directors as compared with with 5,000 men. Her attempt to “tell a story my way,” as she put it, was not welcomed. Though she had spent a decade in the industry, her project was met with skepticism and disapproval. One of the few exceptions was François Truffaut’s production manager, who taught her how to plan the budget. Karina founded her own company to finance the film, since nobody else would. When the movie was released, she had plans for another, with a script in hand. That project never went to production. She did not make another film until Victoria, in 2008, and it would be her last. It is always mentioned in her list of accomplishments but now does not have so much as a trailer available online. Her debut as a director coincided with a falling off in her acting career, as if by claiming authorship over her own work, she had diminished her aura as an actress in the eyes of the French cinema establishment.
Outside the public eye, Karina continued writing. “I’ve been writing short stories since I was a little girl,” she said in a 2016 interview. It was a habit that seemed less like an intellectual pastime—she left school at the age of fourteen—and more about imagining other worlds. In 1983, she published Golden City, a novel with an ambience reminiscent of the gangsters in Band of Outsiders. Building from the casual language of Living Together, she drew from wildly idiosyncratic French mobster slang with a recklessness so atypical of the written language that it can be compared to the guttural poetics of Céline.
As both writer and director, Karina had a style characterized by excess, what might be theorized as the return of everything she had never been allowed to say. In her next two novels, On n’achète pas le soleil (“One does not buy the sun,” 1988) and Jusqu’au bout du hasard (“To the edge of chance,” 1998), her preoccupation is revenge. Both feature adolescents as main characters; both end with patricide. There are no nice strangers. The twelve-year-old heroine of Jusqu’au bout du hasard is repeatedly raped by her father before being sold to a pedophile by her best friend. Rage simmers on the page.
If Karina was angry at the system—the institutions of cinema that kept her out, all she experienced at the hands of men in power—she refrained from expressing such feelings outside her art. “I am afraid that if I tell the truth, I will hurt lots of people,” she said in 2018. The most she ever did was politely reproach Godard for the way he humiliated her while they shot their last film together, Made in U.S.A., as well as for his extended absences. “He would say he was going out for cigarettes and come back three weeks later,” she noted in 2016.
I kept searching for Karina’s tell-all, but this was not the kind of history she was interested in. When asked about Godard in interviews—as she inevitably was—Karina was the first to disavow claims that she was anything more than his muse. “It was like Pygmalion, you know?” she said in 2016. It’s remarkable how often she is the object rather than the subject of her own sentences. A director sees her in the streets of Copenhagen; an agent spots her at Les Deux Magots; Godard watches her fawning over suds in a soap commercial and offers her a job. The word “ambition” seems to have been scrubbed from her vocabulary.
Karina gave voice and form to Godard’s women, women who put up with all manner of abuse in ways that normalized that abuse. I started watching these films as a teenager and fell in love with her spirit, which makes me wonder if I have been complicit in objectifying her as a spectator. How do we remember actresses who collaborated with male directors and, in doing so, perpetuated the way the institution of cinema treats women both on and off the screen?
Still, one can choose to interpret her abandon as a meaningful form of resistance. While playing the melancholic sister in Jacques Rivette’s The Nun (1966), adapted from Denis Diderot’s novel, Karina breaks her series of deliberate, mournful speeches with a smile. It is wide and not particularly beautiful, a grin she lets slip as if forgetting about the camera. In a role that could have so easily given way to melodramatic duress, she transforms her smile into one of the film’s high moments of surprise. She is not a pinup amalgamated from the eternal feminine: her face, her body reveal the interiority of an active subject. While Godard so often takes credit for the work, this moment is Karina’s, and Karina’s alone.
Madison Mainwaring is a writer based in Paris and New Haven.