Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard are one of the most celebrated couples of the early-1960s. Their relationship lit up the screen in a succession of stylish and influential films that helped define French New-Wave cinema.
No sooner had they discovered that they couldn’t live without each other, than they found that living with each other was almost impossible too. The relationship was a dream – a dream that couldn’t survive the realities of day-to-day life for more than a few years. In the end, the cinematic chemistry just couldn’t compensate for Jean-Luc Godard’s and Anna Karina’s fundamental incompatibility.
Jean-Luc, one of four children, is born in 1930 into a prosperous and cultured French family. He grows up in Switzerland and later describes his childhood as being like “a kind of paradise.” Age 16, he goes to Paris to study for his baccalauréat with a view to going to engineering school. But he gets distracted initially and then obsessed by films. Although three years later he manages to get a place at the Sorbonne, he drops out and ends up spending most of his time at the cinema with his mates, who include future directors François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette.
Age 19, J-L is in his element, writing complex articles about the nature of cinema and reviews of films and helping Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette with their first short films. For a year or two, he lives a bohemian life in and around Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the place to be for intellectuals, artists and singers in post-World War II Paris. He’s quite prepared to do what it takes to pursue his obsession. To avoid conscription, he claims Swiss nationality and to raise money he steals from his grandfather and from his employers.
For most of the 1950s, J-L works in a variety of roles in and around the film industry. Then, François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) triumphs at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and puts French New Wave cinema on the map. The stars are aligning to enable J-L to make his first and breakthrough feature film – À Bout de Souffle (Breathless).
J-L’s approach is nothing if not unorthodox. He hires an ex-documentary cameraman to be his cinematographer. He favours a hand-held camera and a minimum of artificial lighting. He writes the dialogue day by day rather than working from the original screenplay. And when it comes to editing, he makes extensive use of jump cuts.
The critics love À Bout de Souffle and so do audiences. The film makes about 50 times its original investment in profits and, thanks in no small part to the publicity campaign he’s orchestrated, much of the attention is focused on J-L himself.
One of the actresses J-L interviews for a part in À Bout de Souffle is Anna Karina. Up to this point, her story could scarcely be more different from his.
Born in Denmark in 1940, Anna Karina has a turbulent childhood – one that could hardly be less like “a kind of paradise.” While she’s still a baby, her father leaves her mother, and her mother leaves little Anna with her grandparents. From age four, she’s in and out of foster homes until, age eight, she moves back to live with her mother and stepfather, who’s now on the scene. Feeling unloved and unwanted, Anna tries time and again to run away, plays truant and leaves school age 14. She finds work as a lift operator, an illustrator’s assistant, as a film extra – she wants to be an actress – but she’s drifting. Then, one evening in 1958, she has a row with her stepfather, he beats her up and that’s it. She ups sticks and heads for Paris with the equivalent of US $15 in her pocket.
There, she lives on the streets until a priest helps her find a room just behind the Bastille. Of course, she finds herself wandering around Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where she’s spotted by photographer Catherine Harlé who is setting up a modelling agency. It’s not long before Anna establishes herself as a top advertising model. She’s on her way and she’s learning to speak French by hanging out at the cinema.
Two shoots help to shape her future. At one she meets Coco Chanel, who tells her she has no chance of breaking into acting so long as she goes by her birth name of Hanna Karin Bayer and rechristens her Anna Karina. The second fateful shoot is for a TV ad for Palmolive soap, which has her in a bath up to her neck in soapsuds. It is here that J-L first comes across her. He makes contact with a view to offering her a part in À Bout de Souffle.
A series of misunderstandings
So why does Anna Karina not appear in À Bout de Souffle? Well, J-L is a geek, all wrapped up in himself. Jean Seberg, the film’s female lead, describes the impression he made on her at their first meeting – “an incredibly introverted, messy-looking young man with glasses,” who didn’t look her in the eye when she talked. When Anna arrives to meet him, he’s again wearing his trademark dark glasses.
With little ado, he tells her she’s got the job, adding offhandedly, “Mind you, you’ll have to take your clothes off.” Anna is outraged. J-L, taken aback, mentions the Palmolive ad. She retorts that underneath the soapsuds she was fully clothed and she doesn’t do nude work. At which point she flounces out.
Not to be deterred, a few months later J-L asks Anna to come back to audition for nothing less than the principal female role in his next film, Le Petit Soldat. Urged on by her friends and impressed by encouraging press reports about À Bout de Souffle, she goes to see J-L a second time. Once again, he does little to put her at her ease or show that he’s taking her seriously. He just looks her up and down and tells her: “Okay, you got the part. You can come and sign the contract tomorrow.” That proves impossible because legally Anna is still a minor. So she has to persuade her mother, with whom she hadn’t been in contact for a year, to sign the contract on her behalf.
Then there’s the advert J-L placed in a trade paper before giving Anna her role.
Jean-Luc Godard who has just finished “Breathless” and who is in pre-production of “Le Petit Soldat” is looking for a young woman between 18 and 27 who will be both his actress (interprète) and his friend (amie).
The first Anna Karina knows of this is when she reads in France Soir, one of the country’s most popular daily newspapers, that Jean-Luc Godard has found his “amie” for his next film. She jumps to the conclusion that “amie” means “girlfriend,” with the implication that she’s slept her way to the role she’s been given. She calls the producer’s office and says she’s pulling out and they can find someone else for the part. It takes J-L, knocking on her front door with 50 red roses and an assurance that she’s misinterpreted the ad, to get her back on side.
Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard get together
It’s spring 1960. In the middle of filming Le Petit Soldat in and around Geneva, there’s a dinner in Lausanne for the whole crew. At the head of the table is Anna’s current boyfriend, flanked by J-L and Anna. Halfway through the meal, J-L passes her a note under the table before getting up to go. It says: “I love you. Rendez-vous at the Café de la Paix at midnight.” Her boyfriend snatches it from her hand, reads it and pleads with her to stay with him. But his pleas fall on deaf ears. When she arrives at the café…
He was sitting there reading a paper, and I was standing in front of him waiting. And I thought it was for hours. Of course it was maybe for three minutes or two minutes. And then suddenly he said, “Oh here you are. Let’s go.”
Game on. When they return to Paris, she moves in with him and they enjoy exploring Paris by night, going to the movies and seeing friends. But it’s not long before cracks in their relationship begin to appear.
A match made in hell
Their backgrounds, personalities and motivations are poles apart. In his professional life, J-L is full of self-confidence. He’s an intellectual and, in his chosen field an uncompromising revolutionary, reclusive by nature and wedded to his work, which leaves little space for Anna. But his desire for Anna to give up acting and his jealousy when she wants to work with other directors suggest that he’s insecure in his private life.
She, on the other hand, is desperate for love, warmth and reassurance in the wake of her unhappy childhood and the father she never knew. She needs someone to pay attention to her, to help her fight the loneliness with which she’s had to struggle. It’s bad enough to be with someone whose mind is elsewhere much of the time he’s with her. Being left at home while he’s away at work is nothing less than a torment.
Meanwhile, J-L uses his films to work through his emotional responses to what’s going on between himself and Anna. He originally conceived Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961) as a frothy comedy but ends up adding an autobiographical element to the story and using it as a vehicle to explore aspects of his relationship. Jean-Claude Brialy, who stars opposite Anna Karina in the film, later recounts how: “They tore each other apart, argued, loved each other, hated each other, screamed at each other.”
When Anna gets pregnant, J-L insists on marrying her. Perhaps it suits them both: it gives him more control over her, and her the security she craves. For a time, they go out together with friends but J-L is ill at ease and taciturn in company. Desperate to get back to work, he disappears off the scene.
I could never understand his behaviour. He would say he was going out for cigarettes and then come back three weeks later. And at that time, as a woman, you didn’t have any chequebooks, you didn’t have any money. So he was off seeing Ingmar Bergman in Sweden or William Faulkner in America. And I was sitting around the apartment without any food.
It gets worse. One night, J-L gets home to find Anna has had a miscarriage. She’s covered in blood and freaking out. She’s in such a bad way that she needs not just to go to hospital but to stay there for a while. When she comes home to recuperate, J-L can’t cope and gets some friends to look after her while he goes off for his work.
When he gets back he feels guilty and rents a villa in the south of France so that he and Anna can spend some quiet time together. But on the way, he loses his resolve, turns the car around and tells his wife it’s impossible – he needs to return to his work.
In autumn 1961 while filming Le Soleil Dans L’Oeil (Sun in Your Eyes), Anna has an affair with the film’s director, Jacques Bourdon. When she tells J-L she wants to leave him, he trashes their apartment and she takes a drug overdose. Once again, she’s hospitalized. But in January 1962 the couple are back together again, thanks not least to the prospect of collaborating on J-L’s next film, Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live).
For a time after that, Anna and J-L work apart from each other on different films – she with Jacques Rivette on a stage production of La Religieuse (The Nun) and, in Spain, with Pierre Gaspard-Huit on Shéhérazade, he on Les Carabiniers (The Soldiers) and, with Brigitte Bardot in Rome, on Le Mépris (Contempt).
At weekends, they often meet up in Paris and Rome. One night at a nightclub, someone asks Anna for a dance. When she gets back, J-L slaps her face in front of their friends and bystanders. Instead of reacting with anger, she sees this as proof that her husband still loves her – a telling indication of both her state of mind and the state of their relationship.
Late in 1963 the couple separate again, and once again J-L uses a new film as a way of getting back together. There’s a pattern here. The film in this case is Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders). But while he’s off working on pre-production, Anna tries to commit suicide again. She’s rescued by their decorator when he returns to retrieve his keys, which he forgot to take with him when he left for the evening. J-L’s response is to send her to a mental hospital. When she’s cleared to leave, he collects her and tells her that shooting will start in three days’ time. The movie proves to be a lifeline:
I had come out of hospital. It was a painful moment. I had lost the taste for life at that time. In the meantime I had lost weight, I wasn’t doing well, neither in my head nor in my body. It’s true: the film saved my life. I had no more desire to live. I was doing very, very badly. This film saved my life.
It also effects the reconciliation J-L is seeking. But not for long. Anna’s next two movies are Jean Aurel’s De L’Amour (All About Love) and Maurice Ronet’s Le Voleur de Tibidabo (The Thief of Tibidabo). While filming the latter, Anna has an affair with her director/co-star, she separates from J-L and the couple file for divorce. In spite of which, they agree to collaborate on his next film, Alphaville. Once again, J-L’s preoccupations with his relationship percolate through, with Eddie Constantine’s character trying to teach Anna’s character to say the words “I love you.”
Next up for the ex-couple is Pierrot le Fou (Pierrot the Madman), in which J-L casts Anna as an unscrupulous floozy who cajoles her now-married ex-lover into eloping with her, leading him on to his ultimate destruction. Based on the plot synopsis, you would imagine that by this time there’s no love lost between the couple. And you’d be absolutely right. Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna’s co-star, describes them as “like a cobra and a mongoose, always glaring at each other.” Their last feature film is Made in U.S.A., J-L yet again unable to help himself referencing his relationship with Anna in the film and being mean to her on set. And that’s it for Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina – after seven and a half years, the curtain comes down on both their personal and their professional relationships.
Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard go their own ways
Both Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina go on to forge remarkable careers. His place in movie history is assured. John Patterson, writing in The Guardian, puts it like this:
Godard is as revolutionary and influential a hinge-figure in cinema as Joyce was to literature and the cubists were to painting. He saw a rule and broke it. Every day, in every movie. Incorporating what professionals thought of as mistakes (jump-cuts were only the most famous instance), mixing high culture and low without snobbish distinctions, demolishing the fourth wall between viewing himself as a maker of fictional documentaries, essay movies, and viewing his movies as an inseparable extension of his pioneering work as a film critic for Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s.
Anna Karina continues to work in the movie business, both as an actress and, on a couple of occasions, as a director. She also has a career as a singer, collaborating with Serge Gainsbourg on a couple of hit songs, Sous le Soleil Exactement and Roller Girl. And she writes several novels.
But their collaborations are what Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina are best remembered and celebrated for, with Filmmaker magazine describing their movies together as “arguably the most influential body of work in the history of cinema.” In an interview years later, Anna says: “He was and will remain the greatest love of my life.” As for J-L, his feelings for her remain inscrutable behind those dark glasses.
Want to know more about Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard?
If you’re seriously interested, head right over to new wave film.com, which has extensive information on French new-wave cinema as well as Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. For lots more photos, take a look at Rose’s Anna Karina fansite. IMDb has a comprehensive listing of Jean-Luc Godard’s and Anna Karina’s filmographies.
In her 70s, Anna Karina has done a series of interviews with, among others, The Guardian , New York Times and Vogue (all 2016), and with CR (2018). Jean-Luc Godard has written so much about cinema it’s impossible to know where to start. You could take a look at Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews edited by David Sterritt. Or, for something a whole lot more digestible, Jean-Luc Godard: The Rolling Stone Interview (1969).