Anna Karina obituary: Actor and singer who rose to prominence in French New Wave cinema during the 1960s

Films made with husband Luc Godard have been called documentaries of Karina herself

Anna Karina with her husband Jean-Luc Godard in Cannes in 1962. Photograph: Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

Anna Karina with her husband Jean-Luc Godard in Cannes in 1962. Photograph: Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

 

Anna Karina

Born: September 22nd, 1940

Died: December 14th, 2019

In Luc Godard’s films, the Danish-born Anna Karina, who has died aged 79 of cancer, is seldom off screen, coquettish and spirited, and never a mere victim or innocent. Their films together have been described as documentaries of Karina herself.

She became an axiom of the Godardian cinema. In contrast, her career seemed barely to exist outside it, even though she starred in a variety of other well-known directors’ films. Her presence is nearly always compared to roles under Godard’s direction.

It was clear from the beginning, in 1961, with A Woman Is a Woman (Une Femme Est une Femme), Godard’s widescreen, colour homage to MGM musicals of the 50s, that he was besotted with her, and they got married later that year.

Their relationship was a classic example of a male auteur constructing his personal universe, and constructing his wife’s persona to fit or perform within that universe. But as their series of collaborations progressed, their marriage gradually dissolved.

Their eighth and final collaboration, Pierrot le Fou, came in the year of their divorce, 1965. It was about the transience of a relationship . It has been suggested that because Godard loved Karina more in moving images than in life it caused the marriage to break. But she confessed that Godard remained, out of her four marriages, the love of her life.

Banned

Karina’s first feature, The Little Soldier (Le Petit Soldat, 1960), was Godard’s second. It was banned by the French information ministry because of its ambivalent attitude to the Algerian war, and since it was released only in 1963, the public first saw Karina in Une Femme est Une Femme. In it, she plays a nightclub stripper who wants to have a baby and settle down with her lover (Jean-Claude Brialy); when he refuses, she turns to his best friend (Belmondo). It won her the best actress award at the Berlin film festival and gave her the chance to play comedy and sing and dance, invoking Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly. The film ends with a French pun. Emile (Brialy): “Angela, tu es infame.” (“Angela, you are awful.”) “Non, je suis une femme.” (“No, I am a woman.”)

Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live, 1962) was a passionate celluloid love letter to Karina, her face in closeup being used to devastating effect, reminiscent of Louise Brooks, Lillian Gish and Falconetti. It tells the tale of the short life of Nana, a beautiful Parisian, in 12 brief scenes. In one, Karina is in a cinema tearfully watching Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc. At another point she is a sex worker who dances seductively around a pool table to gain a client or two.

In Godard’s Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part, 1964), Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur do a spontaneous, synchronised dance in a cafe to which Quentin Tarantino paid homage in the disco duo in Pulp Fiction (1994).

She is suitably robotic in Alphaville (1965), Godard’s tribute to American pulp fiction. When questioned, she does not know the meaning of love or conscience, but the film ends with her uttering “Je vous aime”, to the American private eye Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine).

Vietnamese peasant

Pierrot le Fou saw the end of the love affair as the petty thieves Karina and Belmondo bicker in the south of France, at one stage entertaining American troops with a sketch on the war in Vietnam, with Karina playing a Vietnamese peasant.

A native of Solbjerg, a suburb of Denmark’s second city, Aarhus, she was born Hanne Karin Bayer. Her mother ran a dress shop; her father left shortly after she was born. She had an unhappy childhood, which was partly spent in foster care.

In 1958 she made her way to Paris after working as a model and singing and dancing in cabaret, a talent that Godard utilised in his films. They met when he was casting a supporting role in Breathless, his first film, having seen her in soap ads in the cinema. However, she refused when he mentioned there would be a nude scene.

After Godard, she had no qualms about the title role in The Nun (La Religieuse, 1966), Jacques Rivette’s sombre adaptation of an 18th-century novel by Denis Diderot, in which she has to endure semi-starvation, beatings and sexual harassment and abuse.

She recorded songs by Serge Gainsbourg including Sous le Soleil Exactement and Roller Girl

Having established herself as the darling of the French New Wave, she appeared to less effect in Luchino Visconti’s The Stranger (1967), based on Albert Camus; as a ravishing adolescent in Laughter in the Dark (1969), Tony Richardson’s adaptation of the Vladimir Nabokov novel, moved from its Berlin setting to swinging London; and Justine (also 1969), George Cukor’s failed attempt to compress Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet into one film.

Although she was as attractive as ever in these more conventional roles, Godard’s magic ability to light her from within was missing.

Recorded songs

She recorded songs by Serge Gainsbourg including Sous le Soleil Exactement and Roller Girl on the album Anna (1967), and when she came to have fewer film roles of interest, she wrote four novels.

In 1973, she wrote, directed, produced and starred in Vivre Ensemble (Living Together), a dark, low-budget love story shot in New York. She was also the writer, director and star of a French-Canadian musical road movie, Victoria (2008).

Her second marriage was to the writer and actor Pierre Fabre, in 1968; they divorced in 1974. Four years later she married the actor and director Daniel Duval; they divorced in 1981. Her final marriage came in 1982, to the director Dennis Berry; they divorced in 1994.