Anna Karina: 2 or 3 things we now know about her

The films Anna Karina made with Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s represent one of cinema history’s greatest actor-director partnerships. Here’s what we learned from the recent on-stage appearances of a French film icon.

Matthew Thrift

Vivre sa vie (1962)

Vivre sa vie (1962)

“Sometimes Godard would go to buy cigarettes and come back three weeks later!” – Anna Karina

With BFI Southbank’s enormous, three-month retrospective of the films of Jean-Luc Godard in full swing, the weekend of 16-17 January saw a host of introductions and Q&As from a very special guest. Anna Karina was the filmmaker’s wife and muse, a key face of the French new wave, who starred in eight of her then-husband’s films, including Vivre sa vie (1962), Bande à part (1964) and Pierrot le fou (1965). Interviewed on stage by film critic Jason Solomons and answering questions from a series of packed houses, here are some highlights from the those screenings…

On living and working with Jean-Luc Godard

I was very young when I married Jean-Luc, he was 10 years older than me. I wasn’t somebody who had the right to see the script. Not that there was one anyway; we’d get our dialogue at the very last moment. With everybody, he’d say it was about this or that, but we didn’t really know, it was always very exciting. We’d find out little by little as we created our characters. It’s the opposite of the American system.

Anna Karina

Anna Karina

He’d say on Vivre sa vie that my character becomes a prostitute, but that’s all I knew! It’s hard to explain [the way we worked] as on the one hand it was very precise, but on the other, very improvised. We’d never have the right to improvise dialogue, Jean-Luc was the writer, but if we had a good idea – a very good idea – he’d say: “Ok, I’ll take it.”

Raoul Coutard, the cameraman, and Godard would never speak to each other. It was bizarre. They understood each other without talking. Jean-Luc wasn’t much of a talker. Sometimes he’d go to buy cigarettes and come back three weeks later! I’d be sitting there with no money! At that time there weren’t any cheque books, you couldn’t get money anywhere, I’d have to go and ask the neighbour.

On acting for Godard

We had fun. Lots of fun. When we were making it, we didn’t think about having a great career or anything like that, we just wanted to have a nice time. It was a lot more fun with Jean-Luc Godard than with other directors. We had to make it just like life, which was a good idea because at the time, in classic movies, people would walk into a room, cross it, sit down and then speak, but with Godard we had to smoke a cigarette, drink a glass of water and speak at the same time, just as you would in life.

It was the same with the dialogue. I mean, we’d have marks on the floor because the cameras weren’t like they are today – but it was like a ballet. It’s hard to explain.

On the classic chase through the Louvre in Bande à part

We weren’t allowed to do it. [Godard] had to steal the shots. He said “Just run!” and it came out so natural because we’re being chased for real. That was just one of his crazy ideas.

On the dance sequence in Bande à part

It took us three weeks to rehearse. I always liked to sing and dance, but the two guys, they didn’t know anything. We had to go to this nightclub every night after shooting and rehearse the Madison. It’s the most we ever rehearsed with Jean-Luc Godard, for that dance. It was done in one shot, and took all day long, but I found out after that there’s a hidden cut in the montage that was done so well that you can’t tell it’s there. I think we did the whole thing three or four times.

Bande à part (1964)

Bande à part (1964)

On the reception of Godard’s films

Many people didn’t like the films at the time. I remember when we did Vivre sa vie, there were two guys in a café behind Godard. One was saying he hated the film, the other that it was great, so Godard went up to him and said, “So you didn’t like my film? Well, here, I’ll give you your money back!” People really disliked the films.

On other directors of the French new wave

They’d all hang out. [Claude] Chabrol was really nice back then, he used to give his short ends – the film from the end of the reel – to younger directors to use, as he was a little bit older. He’d always let Jean-Luc use his editing room. There’d always be something going on at the cinematheque too, and because I was so much younger, I never felt like I had much of a right to speak, but they taught me a lot.

On Le Mépris (1963)

Jean-Luc badly wanted to do a film with Brigitte Bardot, which I can understand! I’d gone with him to Rome in the beginning as the producers wanted to do it with Monica Vitti, but she turned up more than an hour late, staring out of the window like she wasn’t interested at all, so he went back to his original idea. I don’t think the film was a big success, which he was hurt about.

On Laughter in the Dark (1969)

It all started with Richard Burton. I was sent a big bouquet of white carnations – bad luck for an actor in France – but I was so proud to do a film with Burton. There was a lot of trouble between him and Tony [Richardson, director] because he was always late. Elizabeth Taylor was there, which didn’t make it any better, because they’d go for lunch and not come back. After a week, Tony said he couldn’t work with Burton – he was drunk, it was all over the papers – so they got in touch with Nicol Williamson who agreed to do it. I’ve never seen it.

Watch Anna Karina’s Q&As in full

Watch Anna Karina’s Bande à part Q&A

Watch Karina introducing Le Mépris

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