“Are you Woody Allen?,” quipped Anna Karina to an audience member who asked her how she felt about being Jean-Luc Godard’s muse. The question came towards the end of a Q&A that followed a screening of A Woman Is a Woman at BAMcinématek on Tuesday as part of Anna in New York, a city-wide celebration of the French New Wave icon. Karina joined Melissa Anderson (The Village Voice) for a conversation about her life and relationship with Godard.
“It was a present that he gave me, like a gift. A precious gift,” said Karina of the seven (“and a half”) films that she did with Godard between 1960 and 1966. When asked if she had a favorite, she likened it to having to choose between children: “How can you choose? One year you like this one better, then you like the other one. It’s difficult.”
Godard famously first came across Karina in a soap commercial. (“I don’t know if he saw me in Monsavon, or if he saw me in Palmolive.” She appeared in both at the same time, underage and without a contract.) He sent her a telegram inviting her to his office to audition for a small part in Breathless. “He looks at me like this,” said an animated Karina, tilting her head to one side then the other, settling into a deadpan stare, “Well, you got the part. You have to take your clothes off.”
Karina, bristled by the proposal, did not take the part, but she did accept an invitation to play the lead in Le Petit Soldat three months later. “A political film with no script is kind of more complicated,” she said of Le Petit Soldat, which took three months due to starts and stops. Perhaps because of the protracted filming period, Karina and Godard began their love affair. “We were looking at each all of the time, getting fascinated with each other. . . . So, we fell in love, and we did the film.”
It’s now hard to imagine A Woman Is a Woman without Karina’s exuberant performance, but Karina explained that Godard had auditioned “all the actresses in Paris” before asking her to come aboard. “Then he asked me to do it, and ah! I was so happy, doing a film with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Claude Brialy, you know,” said Karina, with a characteristically coy shift of her shoulder. On Angela’s love affair: “Did she do or didn’t she do it?” She doesn’t know, and Godard didn’t tell her.
Of course, Karina’s career reaches beyond her relationship with Godard. When Serge Gainsbourg and Pierre Koralnik approached her about starring in a new comedy-musical (“With songs and all that!”), her childhood dream came true. “They couldn’t find a title, so after a while they called it Anna, like me. I liked that,” she said smiling. On her relationship with Gainsbourg, she added, “We were only friends. We would laugh, drink red wine, and smoke cigarettes.”
As a symbol of the French New Wave, it’s all but impossible to separate Karina from Godard. A quick Google search will reveal this. But to return to the question asked by the evening’s Woody Allen: a muse? “When I see all of you here in this theater. . . . I’m very honored. But I’m not a muse,” pausing a beat, “I’m amused, yes.”
Anna Karina will give one more talk during her stay in New York tomorrow night (05/06), following a screening of the newly restored Band of Outsiders at Film Forum. If you can’t make it to see her in person, be sure the catch one of the other Godard screenings this weekend at BAMcinématek and Film Forum.