The sad-eyed, raven-haired Guinevere of the international art film’s belle epoque, Anna Karina will always possess a hallowed place in movie history: She was its first postmodern heroine, its first obscure object of cinephiliac desire. Godard’s ambiguous ardor for Karina, still visible to the naked eye in the seven features they made together between 1961 and 1966, had everything to do with his love for cinema. Karina’s unique relationship with Godard’s camera (an electric nexus of casual hunger and locked gazes that has eluded Godard with any other actress, and Karina with any other director) is unprecedented in its reverberating fascination. The era’s other iconicized women—Monica Vitti, Jeanne Moreau, Liv Ullmann, Stephane Audran, Machiko Kyo, etc.—all had their communicants, but Karina’s role in the slipstream defined Movieness by being all things to all witnesses: star, beauty, impulsive Every-waif, director’s inamorata, self-conscious movie image, genre spoofer, liberated gender-combat totem. Perhaps most thrillingly of all, she was the audacious, and always somewhat remote, heartthrob at the center of cinema’s bravest self-exploratory liaison.
So, meeting Karina today, at 60 and decidedly removed from the grainy, restless seventh heaven in which we’ve come to know her so well, is a shock. For one thing, she’s tall. “Oh, everybody is surprised by that,” she says in a bouncy, cigarette growl. “I just looked small because my eyes are so big. It’s the structure of the face—Sophia Loren and Ursula Andress always seemed enormous, but actually they’re quite petite.”
Celebrating Rialto’s refurbished re-release of Band of Outsiders, Karina is more than happy to revisit her Godardian odyssey, but unsurprisingly her portrait of filmmaking with the master offers up no secrets. For one thing, she never asked questions—as in, Why is the center of a heist film taken up with the three protagonists just hanging out and dancing in a bar? It seems impeccably spontaneous and lovely to us after the fact, but on the set it must’ve seemed, well, irregular, no? “I did as I was told. I had my character; we’d discuss it—what she’d wear, what she’d think. . . . C’mon, this was Jean-Luc! You didn’t interrogate him. People would always accuse us of improvising, but it’s absolutely not true. Jean-Luc’s scripts were always carefully revised, red pages, blue pages, yellow pages. Sure, often he’d make up dialogue on the spot, but everything was rehearsed, particularly the dance sequence in Bande à Part. When I hear about actors trying to control their movies—tsk, tsk. When I work with a director, he’s the director; what he wants me to do, I do. Especially with Jean-Luc: He’s such a genius; you must trust him completely. And I did. Anyway, every actor should once direct a film, so next time he’ll give less shit.”
Godard a workaday autocrat, Karina an obedient ingenue? While life couldn’t have been that ordinary, it adds a shine to the Godard-filmed Karina, an impulsive and stunning creature who inhabits the film sphere alone. Of course, for Karina that was merely the beginning: In the years since their collaboration, the Denmark-born ex-model has been fiercely active, having made dozens of films, and also performed in scores of TV movies, cabarets, and plays. (Next, she’s appearing as a chanteuse in Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie.) This last year has been spent mostly on the road, singing and promoting her new CD. But she’s still pestered and beloved for those intimate little experiments as new audiences continually discover them. “It’s a gift, an honor—these movies were made so long ago, and yet young people come up to me and thank me for making them. In Japan, the U.S., Europe, wherever, youngsters as young as 15, they don’t say, ‘I like that old movie,’ they say, ‘My God, that’s it, that’s life, that’s how I think.’ You know, back then Jean-Luc was criticized for being too new. Now it seems just right.”
Her favorite of the seven films? “Which is yours? I bet I know: Pierrot le Fou.” She nailed me good, God knows how. “For me, it’s difficult to pick one—if you had seven children, how would you say which one you prefer? After all, it was a love story, wasn’t it?”
Click here to read Amy Taubin’s review of Band of Outsiders.