I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

More Than a Pretty Face (Though It Helped): Anna Karina

by Thomas Michalski
May 4, 2012

It’s probably best to get this out of the way: yes, Anna Karina is gorgeous. Like, drop dead gorgeous. It’s kind of what defines her, the first thing people remark upon before going on to recount how French New Wave iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard was so captivated by her that he married her and put her in a bunch of his movies. But that’s a somewhat reductive view of an eventful life since, while her professional and personal relationship with Godard indeed led to her most triumphant moments (as well as her most tragic), it gives the impression that her renown is unearned, based on nothing more than her good looks. In reality, her tumultuous time with the filmmaker was just one (admittedly very important and productive) chapter in a long and ongoing career. Still, though she proved she was more than just a pretty face, it was ironically her beauty which gave her the chance to do so.

Born Hanne Karin Blarke Bayer in Copenhagen on September, 22 1940, Karina had an unhappy childhood, suffering through the collapse of her parents’ marriage before being shuffled off to her grandparents’ house and eventually a succession of foster homes, which she was continually running away from. She had little interest in school and rarely attended; she wanted to study acting, but was still years away from 21, the minimum age required by Danish drama schools. Even though, as a teenager, she found work as an extra and even starred in a low-profile feature, she was frustrated, and being back in her mother’s home didn’t help. One night, she got into an argument with her new stepfather, during which he beat her severely. Traumatized, she ran away once again, this time all the way to Paris.

Barely speaking a word of French, opportunity was hard to come by. She would have been homeless were it not for a kindly priest who found her a small, simple room to keep her off the streets at night. During the day, she wandered around Paris, looking for work, struggling to scrape by and stave off starvation, later claiming that she once went three weeks without eating. During one of her outings, she stopped to rest at Les Deux Magots, a Left Bank café once frequented by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. Like something out of a fantasy rags-to-riches story, a woman named Catherine Harlé approached her, told her she was attractive, and signed her on to do a photo shoot for the magazine Jours de France.

It was the big break she had been struggling and sacrificing for, but there’s no denying that it was just sort of handed to her because she looked pretty in a café one day. Regardless, she made the most of it, and was soon one of the most sought after models in the business. Shooting a fashion spread for Elle magazine, she met the famed Coco Chanel, who told her Hanna Karin Bayer was hardly an appropriate name for a budding starlet and that she should change it to Anna Karina. She did so immediately.

One of her advertising jobs was a television commercial for Palmolive soap, which featured Karina in the bath, suggestively covered in bubbles. Godard saw the commercial and wanted to meet with her to talk about a bit part in his upcoming film, Breathless. Though they would ultimately end up married, that first meeting did not go well. She later described her initial impression of the director as “an odd, timid man” and Godard had wrongly assumed from the winking Palmolive commercial that Karina would not object to doing a nude scene. She was indignant that he would ask her to disrobe on camera, insisting that she was in fact clothed under all those suds, telling Godard that “It was in your mind that I was undressed” before storming out and slamming the door.

Needless to say, she didn’t take the part, but Godard did not give up on her. When it came time to cast his next production, Le Petit Soldat, he asked her to audition again, assuaging her concerns by sending a telegram reading “Mademoiselle, this time it’s for the principal role.” Filming began and, soon after, so did their romantic relationship. While it would always be apparent that they loved each other very deeply, their honeymoon period was short lived, and things devolved quickly. In hindsight, they were rather incompatible: the busy filmmaker who would say he was going out for cigarettes and not come back for days and the insecure, perpetually lonely actress. What could go wrong?

There were infidelities and suicide attempts, but the films they made together always seemed to bolster, at least for a while, what was rather obviously a doomed relationship. That those films, among them Vivre sa vie, Pierrot le fou, Band of Outsiders and Alphaville, turned out to be bona fide classics makes it tempting to try and determine how much real life drama was making it onto the screen. Godard rarely used a script, often coming up with ideas on set, and there are certainly moments where what happens in the films is directly inspired by the state of their relationship that very day. Even when Karina wasn’t in the movie their personal issues affected the process; when Godard was directing Brigitte Bardot in Les Mepris (Contempt), a film about a marriage falling apart during the making of a movie, he allegedly weirded out his leading lady out by coercing her into acting, and even walking, more like Karina.

But while there was some degree of overlap between reality and fiction, it would be wrong to think that the emotion and reality she brought to her roles was merely misplaced anxiety and angst about the state of her love life. Karina’s performances were truly impressive and they didn’t go unnoticed. She won the best actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival and went on appear in films by a variety of famed directors, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Luchino Visconti and George Cukor. Over the years, her filmography would grow to include dozens of titles, though some were inevitably forgettable or obscure, and she would eventually transition to writing and directing with moderate success. Her work both in front of and behind the camera has been on and off, buts she’s more or less still at it; her last film, Victoria, came out in 2008.

Between film roles, she also found time to dabble in music, which began when she starred in Serge Gainsbourg’s made-for-TV musical Anna, which as the name suggests, was written around her personality and character. The project spawned two hits, “Sous le Soleil Exactement” and the brassy “ Roller Girl”, but then singing got put on the back burner, that is until she revived the pursuit in 2000, releasing Une Histoire D’Amor, a collaboration with French vocalistPhilippe Katerine. She hit the shelves again in 2008, with the release of Chansons De Films, a collection of the songs she’s sung in films.

In addition to all that, Karina has even written a handful of novels, but suffice it to say that she’s a mutli-talented woman whose professional life extends far beyond her work with Godard, even if that period was the most groundbreaking and influential. In a way, she’s a lot like Nico, someone whose beauty certainly opened doors that would probably have otherwise remained locked, but who used that opportunity to make their own unique cultural contribution, proving they had more to them beyond being eye candy. Godard may have made her a Nouvelle Vague icon, but she endured long after the new wave was old hat. Okay, that’s my piece. You can go back to ogling her now.






Thomas Michalski is a writer and radio host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can keep up with his comings and goings over at http://www.voodooinspector.com/