The Muse Stays in the Picture: On the Eternal Appeal of Anna Karina

anna karina

The Internet is a peculiar mother. It has borne myriad stars, most burn bright and fast before their inevitable flatline; others keep shining strong, hinting at an immortality that transcends the medium. In some cases, strangely enough, this is despite—or even because of—predating it. Think of the bright star that is Anna Karina, the Danish-born actress (and singer and dancer and writer and film-maker) who shot to fame in the early 1960s primarily via her work with French director Jean-Luc Godard, with whom she made iconic New Wave films like Bande à Part, Une Femme Est une Femme, and Vivre Sa Vie. It is difficult to overstate the impact that Karina’s presence has had upon movie-goers; in the seven films she and Godard made together, her wide-eyed gaze, at once perfectly lucid and wildly unknowable, was quickly identified as emblematic of an experimental new form of cinema, one that was tightly controlled by its makers, unhinged only in the sense that it was a world split open; suddenly, hopelessly free. Watching Karina, all that was possible was suddenly visible.

Karina then is an undeniable symbol of the 60s cinema zeitgeist, a singular embodiment of the froth and force that signaled the New Wave, but she has also now, improbably but also maybe obviously, become a child of the nostalgia-encouraging Internet, a ubiquitous presence on Tumblr and Instagram, platforms which are now home to countless images of Karina, mainly stills from her work with Godard, not infrequently accompanied by enigmatic subtitles: “The more one talks, the less the words mean.” “Why is it always women who suffer?” “I think women who don’t cry are stupid.” “If this is love, why bother?” “You got me all wrong.”

None of these words are Karina’s, exactly; on a recent afternoon, at a press conference to celebrate Anna and Jean-Luc the weeklong residency of Godard’s Karina-centered work at Film Forum featuring a restored edition of Band à Part, Karina confirmed that Godard’s films were never ad-libbed, each word was scripted, even if that script only reached her minutes before filming began. And yet, despite the fact that the words are not Karina’s and the characters are not Karina (indeed, the characters are all incredibly distinct from one another, dissimilar in countless ways), what we remember is Karina; what we are still drawn to, more than five decades after she first graced the screen, is Karina—her presence, her personality, her.

Anna Karina

We are not alone, of course, in being drawn to Karina; she’s worked with many storied directors over the course of her career (including Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder), though it is her work with Godard, her one-time husband, which we best remember. And, in fact, while Godard made great films without Karina, Contempt and Breathless to name just two (the latter for which he wanted her in a bit part; she refused because he told her she’d need to remove her clothes, and she wouldn’t do it for anything less than the lead), it is his work with Karina which has perhaps left the most indelible mark on the public consciousness. This is due in no small part to the particularities of their working and personal relationship, a symbiotic one of artist and muse. Karina inspired Godard, he created characters for her, and her performances undeniably informed other aspects of the films in which they appeared. And yet, Karina was no mere vessel for Godard’s artistic ambitions; such was the specific genius of their collaboration that they not only elevated each other’s work, but they managed to elevate the very idea of an artist-muse relationship; simply because the words Karina spoke were not her own, does not mean that her voice could not be clearly heard.

Too often, the muse is diminished, the concept itself derided. This is understandable. A muse is almost always a woman; there is almost always an existing power imbalance in relation to the artist. We think of the muse as being an object, silent, even though it’s almost funny and certainly sad to assume that a muse would not have a voice just because we haven’t heard her speak. But such is the power of Anna Karina that she both embraced the concept of the muse, specifically in relation to Godard (of whom she only—always—speaks highly, despite having had no contact with the reclusive director in years), and subverted it. Karina gives a depth and interiority to that which could easily be seen as flat or superficial; she transcends the confines of the characters she plays, of the very medium of film—of time itself—and she becomes what we identify with, who we want to see and hear and be. This would not have been possible without Godard. She took from him just as he took from her; but what they created together is so much more than the sum of their parts.

When I had the chance to ask Karina, who, at 75 is as captivating a presence as ever (happily with as much winged eyeliner as ever), which of the disparate characters she’d played had been her favorite, her answer was a non-answer, a denial that she could even pick a favorite. “It’s difficult! I like them all in different ways. Lucky me!” And, really, it was the wrong question; the beauty of Anna Karina’s career is not simply about her ability to become different characters, but rather her ability to always be herself, and for her characters to be her. The beauty of Anna Karina’s career, and the reason she has stayed at the forefront of our collective consciousness even after all these years is that she has given us herself, a perfectly imperfect example of humanity in which we can revel. Lucky us.

To see the schedule for Anna and Jean-Luc at Film Forum, visit here.

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