“Everybody wants to tell you how it was,” Anna Karina says exasperatedly. “I read strange things in the papers and for the most part they're written by people who weren't there. I get very upset about that.”
If anyone is an authority on “how it was” to be with Jean-Luc Godard at the height of his fame in the 1960s, it's Karina. The muse-cum–leading lady of eight of the fabled writer-director's most important films, and his offscreen spouse from 1961 to 1967, Karina was more than merely “there.” On-screen and off, Godard and Karina were in such emotional and intellectual rapport, he had only to glance at her to get the result he sought.
“All these movies were presents from Jean-Luc to me,” says the actress on the phone from Paris, where she's making preparations to come to Los Angeles for a special screening of a new, digitally restored edition of one of their most famous collaborations, Pierrot le Fou, screening as part of the annual City of Lights, City of Angels French-film festival (COLCOA), which runs April 19 to 25.
“It was a very happy movie,” she declares of the offbeat 1965 thriller about a bored businessman (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who absconds with a gunrunning babysitter for a life of crime, adventure and musical numbers. “Of course Jean-Luc and I were not living together anymore by then, but that was no problem.”
That an ex-wife should harbor no residual bitterness toward a former spouse may be unusual. But if you're familiar with the films they made (including A Woman Is a Woman, Vivre Sa Vie, Band of Outsiders and Alphaville), you'll know why. Whatever passed between Godard and Karina personally, professionally they were a powerful team, not casually tossed asunder. He offered her exceptional roles, and he needed her to enact his dramatically cinematic ideas. Godard felt all films were at heart documentaries; even in the midst of creating fictional characters and stories, he wanted every moment to be “felt” and true. And Karina was in complete agreement. It's not easy to find an actress who can stab a man to death and then sing a song as she ignores the corpse, as Karina does in Pierrot.
Their relationship was, as Cole Porter would say, “too hot not to cool down.” Before that inevitable cooling, there were explosions, as Jacques Rivette shows in his film à clef of the Godard-Karina breakup, L'Amour Fou, which climaxes with the principal couple (played by Bulle Ogier and Jean-Pierre Kalfon) locking themselves in their apartment for a romantic, emotional free-for-all. The films Godard and Karina made together, particularly Pierrot le Fou, reflect this heat, while along the way reworking just about every convention that had existed in cinema up to that point. Godard called the characters in Pierrot le Fou “the last romantic couple,” with Belmondo representing “passive life” and Karina “active life.” This perfectly encapsulates the Godard-Karina dynamic. She was “action” — he was the one who observed it.
And between them was the audience, a third participant Godard delighted in acknowledging. “Who are you talking to?” Belmondo asks Karina after one of her straight-to-the-camera monologues in Pierrot le Fou. “The spectators,” she replies. This breaking of the fourth wall was typical of Godard's staccato-paced mixtures of comedy, tragedy, documentary and fiction.
“We didn't have a script, but with Jean-Luc we didn't really need one,” Karina recalls of Pierrot le Fou (though she might just as well have been speaking of any of their collaborations). “It was like an understanding between us. He would say, 'Anna, a little bit quicker or a little bit slower.' That was all. We didn't do a lot of retakes. With some other actors I know he would do a lot of retakes, but not with me.”
Karina began her career as a model for Chanel before deciding to try films. “Jean-Luc asked me to play a small part in Breathless, the role of Belmondo's former girlfriend. It was just one scene. I asked him what I had to do and he said, 'You have to take your clothes off,' and I said no. I thought that was that, but a few months later, he asked me to come in again, telling me, 'This time it's a lead.' So I said, 'Do I have to take my clothes off?' He said, 'No, it's a political film.' ”
That film was Le Petit Soldat, Godard's thriller about the Algerian war, which in one pivotal scene features the “enhanced interrogation technique” we know today as waterboarding. “I told him I know nothing about politics, and he said, 'Don't worry about it. You just do what I tell you to do. Come in and sign your contract.' I was underage so I had to get my mother to sign it for me. And then we started, and that was the beginning of the whole story.”
The “story” eventually encompassed a wide range of cinematic experiments, from the lightweight musical A Woman Is a Woman to the heavyweight study of prostitution Vivre Sa Vie and the quirky crime thriller Band of Outsiders. All of them were keyed to Karina's face and body, with special attention paid to the soulfulness of her enormous eyes, frequently staring straight into the camera — at Godard, at us.
It's fitting that in their final collaboration, Made in USA, Godard cast Karina as a “woman of action” — a character who, in the novel that is the film's source, is in fact male. That's because, for Godard, Karina was never an actress like all the others; she was in some ways a kind of female version of himself. Godard would go on to marry Bresson discovery Anne Wiazemsky, and collaborate with her on such noteworthy films as La Chinoise, Weekend and Sympathy for the Devil. But she wasn't like Karina, and Godard never asked that she try to be. Post-Karina, his work as a whole altered, shifting first into his disastrous “Maoist” period (Wind From the East, Vladimir and Rosa), and thankfully out of it into the cool, cryptic films of the last three decades (Nouvelle Vague, First Name: Carmen, Detective).
Karina, meanwhile, was as busy as her ex, working with filmmakers like Serge Gainsbourg, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Tony Richardson, exploring territory Godard never would have dared. Most noteworthy is Luchino Visconti's film of Camus' The Stranger, where we were treated to the sight of Karina's breasts for the very first time. Clearly Godard's intimacy and candor had their limits. As did his sensitivity, as is clear from the high regard Karina holds for a director who was his polar opposite — George Cukor, who in 1969 directed her and an all-star cast in an adaptation of Lawrence Durrell's Egyptian-set romance drama, Justine. “We became very good friends. Such a beautiful person and such a fantastic director.” And quite a change from the improvisatory rigors of Godard, whose name Karina always returns to when talking about her career.
“I'm very happy for Belmondo,” she says of her Pierrot le Fou co-star, recently honored by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. “In the past, he never talked about Breathless and how it made him a star. He's talking about it now, and what he did with Jean-Luc. It's always important to talk about what Jean-Luc did — for him, for me, for everyone.”
Pierrot le Fou (1965), directed by Jean-Luc Godard and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, screens on Friday, April 23, as part of the City of Lights, City of Angels French-film festival, which runs April 19-25. More info at colcoa.org.