It was Anna Karina’s fate, or curse, to be perpetually described as an “icon” or a “muse”: a devastatingly beautiful figurehead and inspiration-figure to all those male directors doing the creating or critics doing the rhapsodising – one male director-cineaste in particular. She certainly was every bit as beautiful as everyone ceaselessly said, but it was her easy charm, intelligence and grace which made that beauty visible and made it exist. It was the kind of acting talent which made her whole style and address to the camera look easy, or not like acting: the kind of thing which bad or inexperienced actors – or very good male stars – foreground as an effortfully meaningful performance. And she had parallel careers as singer, producer, director and novelist.
In her famous “dance” scene in Bande à Part (1964), directed by her husband Jean-Luc Godard, she is Odile, who meets up with Franz (played by Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), the people with whom she plans to do a robbery. For no reason at all, for the sheer subversive mischief and fun of it, and partly also because they are a little bored (arguably the motivation for everything else as well), they do an extraordinarily insouciant dance together in the middle of a café.
It’s a dance which naturally challenges the expectations of realism because it looks like what it is: a choreographed number which the three actors have clearly been rehearsing all day, and which they amusingly still haven’t got completely right, but in which they look entirely and cheerfully at ease. Nobody is facing each other, partly in order to preserve the ambiguity of where among them the romantic or sexual connection is to be found. Godard characteristically shoots it from one camera position, with no changes when the three dancers turn their backs to us. But what is easy to forget is that the two men finally wander off, leaving Anna Karina’s Odile dancing on her own, almost childlike, and she finally beams a beguiling and bewitching smile at us.
Famously, Godard first noticed Karina when she was a model doing a Palmolive ad, in a bath with soap bubbles all the way up to her shoulders, but her first film with him was the moment his obsession with her began. In Le Petit Soldat (released in 1963) she plays Veronica, a model who entrances Bruno, a French photographer in Geneva during the Algerian war who is doing dirty “black ops” work for an anti-Algerian government group and who winds up getting tortured and beaten by both sides. The action is suspended for a very Godardian dialogue scenes between this man (Michel Subor) and Karina: she is tellingly compared to a character by the dramatist Jean Giradoux, whose great theme was woman as an unattainable ideal. (It is to Veronica that Subor utters the famous line about cinema being truth 24 times a second.)
The contrast between supposed male intellectualism and female beauty couldn’t be clearer, with Bruno being given a voiceover in which he is allowed to ruminate about culture, politics and society – and yet now in 2019 it is Karina who looks calmer, clearer and more natural. Perhaps it is actually Godard’s essential incomprehension of Karina, and of women in general, which paradoxically gives her that presence which radiates from the screen. To be fair, Godard did not habitually fetishise Karina’s body as such, in the way he ironically did with Bardot in Le Mépris. Another famous phrase attributed to Godard is the one about all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. In human, practical terms Godard was probably utterly naïve about both girls and guns, but Karina could survive his naivety and transcend it.
This idea is amplified, in a way to fascinate and exasperate posterity still further, with Godard’s Une Femme Est Une Femme (aka A Woman Is a Woman), his colour movie in the lighter vein of musical comedy, which places Karina at the centre of an à trois romantic set-up which was to be a feature of the New Wave in films like Bande à Part and Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. She is an exotic burlesque dancer, who at one moment does an uproarious number in a modified “sailor-suit” creation for the implausible benefit of a bunch of slobbish male drinkers. Again, the movie’s tongue is in its cheek, and Karina beautifully handles the lightness and throwaway absurdity of that, and everything else in the film.
She had another dance scene in Vivre Sa Vie (1962), which was perhaps the most demanding role for Karina in this run of early great movies: the woman who leaves her husband and child for the yearned-for freedom of acting and then sex work. Again, she is dancing for men who seem baffled by her and oblivious to her. It is here in this film, that her beauty looks to me a little different to the way it is usually described. She is not “doe-eyed; there is something feline and leonine about Karina in these movies. But there was also something utterly innocent about her, too, playing opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s deconstructed crime thriller Pierrot le Fou, in which she, like him, sometimes looks like a little kid playing cops’n’robbers. There has to be that same element of satire and absurdity in Godard’s 1965 sci-fi conceit Alphaville when Karina’s eerily detached and affectless woman has a relationship with her ostensible lover, Lemmy Caution (played by Eddie Constantine), a meeting of minds (if not of hearts) represented by a eerie prose-poem of words and images in which Karina’s voice and face are a potent ingredient.
Some of the films in Karina’s later career perhaps caricatured the stylish and sexy persona she created in this early work with Godard: she was the unstable lover of the expatriate Englishman played by Michael Caine in The Magus in 1968, and was Margot, the younger woman who bewitches Nicol Williamson’s middle-aged man in Laughter in the Dark (1969), directed by Tony Richardson. For Jacques Rivette’s The Nun (1966), Karina offered audiences something different: a sense of suffering and loneliness and spiritual imprisonment. Perhaps that stark, enigmatic austere film tapped into a side of Karina that did not interest Godard: a kind of religious mystery. Anna Karina cast a magic spell on cinema.