Anna Karina & Godard
To mark the 48th anniversary of the Paris release of Vivre Sa Vie, written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard and starring Anna Karina, Faber & Faber’s Walter Donohue presents Karina’s views on her then-husband.
Think of the films of Jean Luc-Godard, and immediately the face of Anna Karina begins to form. Her presence is inextricably tied to one’s sense of his films. As David Thomson says in his Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Godard’s work with Karina is the peak of his art, where he attains a glimpse of emotion that illuminates its omission in the rest of his films.”
Godard and Karina met, married and divorced – but the 7 films they made together have resisted the ravages of time. Below, Anna Karina describes her first encounters with Godard:
Graham Fuller: How did you meet Jean-Luc Godard?
Anna Karina: I did a lot of commercials for soaps and things like that. Jean-Luc saw a couple and asked me to come and see him because he was preparing Breathless. He said, “There’s a little part in the film. You have to take your clothes off.” I said, “I don’t want to.” And he said, “In that case, you don’t do the film.” That was fine by me and I left. Three months later he sent me a telegram saying there might be a part for me in another film. I showed it to my friends and said, “This guy wants to go to bed with me or something. I don’t want to go there.” They said, “You must be crazy. He just did a picture called Breathless. It’s not out yet but everyone says it’s fantastic. You absolutely must go and see him.”
I went back to his office. He said he wanted me to do the part and that I should sign the contract the next day. I asked him what the picture was about and he told me it was political. I said, “I could never do that. My French is not good enough and I know nothing about politics.” He said, “It doesn’t matter – you just have to do what I tell you to do.” And I said, “But do I have to take my clothes off?” And he said, “Not at all.” I told him that I couldn’t sign because I was underage. He said I should come back with my mother and that the production would fly her down from Copenhagen. I phoned her and said, “Mother, I’m going to star in a picture in France, and it’s very important you come.” “In a picture – you?” she said. “Yes, and it’s a political picture, Mother.” She said, "You must be out of your mind. You have to go to the hospital to see if you’re ok.” And I said, “No, Mother, you have to take the plane tomorrow because if you don’t come they might change their mind!” She hung up because she didn’t believe it. I phoned back and swore on my grandad’s head it was for real – she knew he was the person I loved the most. So she took the plane and we signed the contract. That’s how I got into The Little Soldier.
Graham Fuller: How did you and Jean-Luc get together?
Anna Karina: That happened while we were shooting the picture in Geneva. It was a strange love story from the beginning. I could see Jean-Luc was looking at me all the time, and I was looking at him too, all day long. We were like animals. One night we were at this dinner in Lausanne. My boyfriend, who was a painter, was there too. And suddenly I felt something under the table – it was Jean-Luc’s hand. He gave me a piece of paper and then left to drive back to Geneva. I went into another room to see what he’d written. It said, “I love you. Rendezvous at midnight at the Café de la Prez.” And then my boyfriend came into the room and demanded to see the piece of paper, and he took my arm and grabbed it and read it. He said, “You’re not going.” And I said, “I am.” And he said, “But you can’t do this to me.” I said, “But I’m in love too, so I’m going.” But he still didn’t believe me. We drove back to Geneva and I started to pack my tiny suitcase. He said, “Tell me you’re not going.” And I said, “I’ve been in love with him since I saw him the second time. And I can’t do anything about it.” It was like something electric. I walked there, and I remember my painter was running after me crying. I was, like, hypnotized – it never happened again to me in my life.
So I get to the Cafe de la Prez, and Jean-Luc was sitting there reading a paper, but I don’t think he was really reading it. I just stood there in front of him for what seemed like an hour but I guess was not more that thirty seconds. Suddenly he stopped reading and said,” Here you are. Shall we go?” So we went to his hotel. The next morning when I woke up he wasn’t there. I got very worried. I took a shower, and then he came back about an hour later with the dress I wore in the film - the white dress with flowers. And it was my size, perfect. It was like my wedding dress.
We carried on shooting the film, and, of course, my painter left. When the picture was finished, I went back to Paris with Jean-Luc, Michel Subor, who was the main actor, and Laszlo Szabo, who was also in the film, in Jean-Luc’s American car. We were all wearing dark glasses and we got stopped at the border – I guess they thought we were gangsters. When we arrived in Paris, Jean-Luc dropped the other two off and said to me, “Where are you going?” I said, “I have to stay with you. You’re the only person I have in the world now.” And he said, “Oh my God.” We took two rooms at the top of a hotel and he went to the cutting room every day.
Graham Fuller: Were you aware that he was reinventing cinema?
Anna Karina: We knew we were doing something special. We’d take the films around Paris and out to the provinces and talk to the audiences after the screenings. And some people loved them and some people hated them. One day Jean-Luc and I were sitting in a cafe in Boulevard St Michel and we heard these two students talking about My Life to Live. One was screaming, “I love this picture!” and the other one, who had his back to us, was saying, “I hate spending money on this kind of shit.” And Jean-Luc tapped him on the back, gave him ten francs and said, “OK, you didn’t like my picture. Why don’t you go and see a picture you really like?” The guy was very red-faced and apologetic.
Extract taken from an interview with Anna Karina conducted by Graham Fuller in Projections 13: Women Film-makers on Film-making, edited by Isabella Weibrecht, John Boorman and Walter Donohue (Faber & Faber, 2004)