Looking For (But Never Really Finding) Anna Karina in New York

Upon the visit of the French New Wave icon to a city celebrating her collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard.
Peter Rinaldi

Illustration by Leah Bravo

All of my fantasies about meeting and talking to Anna Karina have been set in France, at her home, under constant worry of arrest, having just knocked on her door without an invitation. I ask her questions and she answers them all with tears in her eyes: "What was it like to act for Jean-Luc Godard, the man you loved, even when you were fighting like cats and dogs, even when he broke your heart? And how, in God's good name, did you manage to create performances that never age, that show no sign of origin, no influence, that absolutely confound me in the best possible way? How did you do it?” 

These fantasies found nourishment in the assumption that the icon of the French New Wave was fairly reclusive, not wanting to be bothered, certainly not wanting to talk anymore about those films, that time, that man. So imagine my surprise when I heard she was coming to New York for a tour, of sorts, answering questions after screenings of three of her films with Jean Luc Godard, culminating with the premiere of a new restoration of Band of Outsiders (1964) at Film Forum. The opportunity needed to be seized.

I wanted to follow Anna Karina around New York all week and write a fly-on-the-wall,  “Gay Talese style” profile, discovering her through observing her in various interactions.  Since I wasn’t Gay Talese, Karina’s publicist didn’t go for that idea. The consolation prize? I could attend the small press conference.

I took my place among a sober gaggle of journalists waiting on the elegant second floor of the French Cultural Services building on Fifth Avenue. I had never attended a press conference before. Was there a protocol? I had no clue and I wasn't about to ask. I tried to play cool.

A smiling Anna Karina entered. A dream had just come true; I was in the same room with her. Her exuberance and generally delightful manner annihilated any nerves in the vicinity. No artifice, no airs, the 75-year-old superstar seemed happy to be there. It was hard not to smile.

Then the announcement:  Ms. Karina would do pictures next to the new poster for Band of Outsiders. Something about the way she was asked to stand there while we snapped pictures felt like a Lola Montes moment, the girl in the cage. Maybe it felt wrong because of the contrast with the Anna Karina who had just walked in the room; she had immediately offered her realness and we wanted her image.

Band of Outsiders

To get the conference started, Anna was asked to tell the story of her coming to Paris as a teenager, all by herself, with no money, friends, family or home. While it’s an amazing story, it is also a well-documented one. I'm of the mind that if information is available to us at a moment's notice, I don't see much point in rehashing that information, especially when there's so much we don't know. I often feel like I'm in the minority. My first pang of impatience occurred. 

"They were like presents for me from Jean-Luc," Karina said referring to the seven features she's made with the legendary auteur. She simply did what she was told. Everything, every single movement, was precisely orchestrated by Godard. She repeatedly mentioned that there was "no script," which can be misconstrued that these films were improvised. When in fact, according to Karina, once Godard wrote and gave the lines to the actors, which was often on the morning of the shoot, the dialogue had to be spoken exactly. “But it was very natural,” said Karina, and so it came easy to her. Godard has said he waited till the last minute to give actors their lines "so the actors won't have any time to think about dialogue and get prepared. That way they have to give more of themselves. They’re more clumsy that way but also more total." Total. That is an apt one-word description of Karina’s work in his films.

But is she happy with the results now, looking back? “I always thought that if you do something that the director likes, that he wants, why shouldn’t you be happy?” Karina said. “It’s his picture and he asked me to do it.” Modest, self-effacing, or just unaware of the significance of her personal contributions? I couldn't figure it out. 

Band of Outsiders

Each film with Godard was made at a different climb or fall in their roller-coaster relationship. I asked what it was like to revisit these movies now with such a loaded emotional connection to each of them. “First of all, I didn’t expect these films to still be liked, especially by young people,” she said. “They were made so long ago, but they don’t think it’s old fashioned. I’m grateful for that.” Then she pointed to her heart, “But sometimes I have a… how do you say?” She tapped her chest and looked around for someone to tell her the words.

Her husband, Dennis Berry, who was sitting among the press, chimed in with a suggestion: “pincement au cœur."

“Yes...that's it, " She continued, still pointing at her heart, "But sometimes I have a pincement au coeur because of my story with Jean-Luc.” 

Their story has lofty highs and major lows— a miscarriage, suicide attempts, abandonment, divorce, and continuous stress emanating from an obsessive, workaholic artist. “Film came first,” Karina has said. But I wanted to know how the memories of those troubles affect her feelings about the films, these works of art on which they collaborated through it all. Although she was perhaps not consciously withholding, I sensed a disconnect with the gist of the questions. She’d often resort to a stock answer, using almost the exact wording she used before, even at times when that answer didn’t really address the question.  Dennis seemed to be getting frustrated by this. He tried prompting her. “Tell them how when you were working with Godard, you guys had fun,” he yelled to her at one point. “How it was like a party with the actors. It was very fun, right?”

“Yes it was fun. We had fun,” Anna agreed, yet failed to take the cue. “But it was also very precise.”

After the press conference, I talked to Dennis. There seemed to be another side to it all that he wanted her to reveal or explore. What was it? 

“When she was ten years old, she was at a Count Basie concert,” he told me. “Count Basie fell ill and had to leave the stage and his orchestra asked if there was anyone in the audience who could take over. Anna’s hand went up. She got on the stage.” Age ten!? Berry confirmed it. He continued, “When we’d go biking, she’d sing songs and play characters, it was like we were in a musical. It’s all ‘play’ for her. And it was ‘play’ for her making those films.”

That shed a small light on the mystery of Anna Karina. Other actors needed to know why Godard was asking them to walk to the window, pick up the glass, take a drag of the cigarette, and then walk out of the room, in that order. Karina didn’t need that from him. She was just ready to ‘play.’ Her willingness to ‘play’ made it all seem to be coming from her. “It’s a testament to her talent that everyone thinks it was all improvisation,” I offered to Dennis. He agreed.

But still, plenty of actors like to play. Yet Anna Karina is more alive in these films than any of the other great "players" I can think of. It’s a miraculous frame-by-frame aliveness. How did it happen? Where did she get it from?

A Woman Is a Woman

That night in Brooklyn, BAM screened the film that introduced Anna Karina to the world, the 1961 re-invention of the musical in Parisian Eastmancolor, A Woman is a Woman. Afterwards, the capacity crowd exuberantly welcomed their cherished star. The love in the place was palpable, overpowering. Critic Melissa Anderson spoke to Karina and, once again, for the second time that day, she was asked to tell her coming-to-Paris story. Anderson failed to see the spots Karina was leaving for her to ask the next question and so Anderson let her go on and on. Karina is one of those consummate performers who will gently give her co-star a nice, graceful cue to enter, but if they don’t pick it up, she’ll fill that space effortlessly and keep on going. And so there was only time for three questions from the audience—one about fellow French New Wave director Jacques Rivette, one about Serge Gainsbourg, and the last about her being Godard’s “muse.” Karina clearly didn’t like that term. Anderson offered another, “collaborator.” She hated that more.

I was beginning to realize that most folks were so happy just to see this beloved and elusive legend in person, that they felt no need to push for more probing questions or deeper answers. They were delighted to listen to a good story, even one told before, and smile. What mattered was just being with her, seeing her, hearing her. But I needed more.

Independent filmmaker Caveh Zahedi was scheduled to interview Karina for Filmmaker Magazine the next day. I convinced him that he needed me to record the sound for the interview. In addition to being a great filmmaker, Zahedi is a pretty amazing interviewer who doesn’t bow to social conventions nearly as much as the rest of us. He isn’t afraid of saying something awkward, of awkward pauses, or of just being awkward. In fact, he kind of leans toward it. He wasn’t going to pull those rote questions out, setting her up to pull down her stock answers. Having experienced the first two events, however, I did brief him on the triggers to stay away from that might send her to that shelf.

At mid-afternoon, the Cafe Carlyle was nearly empty, and the dark wood, subdued lighting and secluded tables seemed ideal for an intimate interview. Karina was finishing up another interview as we arrived and were ushered to her table. I heard Anna say to someone “I feel like I have talked more about my life in the past two weeks than ever before.” She greeted Zahedi with genuine warmth. As I placed the microphone on her I said "I played a journalist yesterday just to be with you, and now I'm playing a sound man." She laughed, thank God. 

At the beginning of the interview, Caveh broached the idea of making a film about her relationship to Godard. No. Too personal, she said. She wouldn't want that. A memoir? Maybe, but not a film. He mentioned the announcement, just a day before, of the film going into production about Godard's relationship after Karina, with Anne Wiazemsky, based on her memoir. "They're making a movie of that?!" she asked. She’d read the book but hadn't heard about the film. “It’s going to star Louis Garrel,” Zahedi informed her. “Louis Garrel? He’s a friend of mine.” She seemed surprised that they were making a movie about that period in his life. 

Zahedi got her to the now-famous “Anna and Jean-Luc Rendezvous Story.” During the making of their first film together, Le petit soldat (completed 1960, released 1963), the two spent months eyeing each other but neither made a move. Then, at a dinner party, Godard slipped a note to Anna as her boyfriend sat beside her. It read, “I love you. Rendezvous with me at the Café de la Paix at midnight.” Karina has said that she felt strangely compelled to go there, as if there was no choice. She had to go. So she did. “He was sitting there reading a paper, and I was standing in front of him waiting,” She told Zahedi. “And I thought it was for hours. Of course it was maybe for three minutes. And then suddenly he said, ‘Oh here you are. Let’s go.’” 

And that is usually where people seem to be happy with the story ending, at this “the rest is history” moment. But Zahedi asked her something no one else asked: "Where'd you go?"

 "To his hotel,” Anna answered.

“So you spent the night with him?" 

Yes. And in the morning, she woke to a present from Godard. A white dress. 

"I wore it in Le petit soldat, A white dress with flowers… Just for me. Like a wedding dress.”

Zahedi kept the exchange conversational and she seemed to find it refreshing. It was wonderful to hear her speak to someone without an audience around. But just when she was beginning to get comfortable, the interview had to end. Time was up. 

Amanda Field, Zahedi’s wife, took pictures of Karina in the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel, and then she graciously posed with Caveh, showing not a hint of exasperation. I fought my embarrassment and insisted on one picture with her, my favorite actress of all time. Looking at the photo now, the thought of Lola Montes returns. There I was, just one of the men standing in line. It would make me a lot less ashamed if I’d been as present with her as she seemed to be with us. It feels too much like I paid my dollar, kissed her hand and moved out of the way for the next man. 

Pierrot le fou

That night, Karina spoke to Molly Haskell after a screening of Pierrot le fou (1965) at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Haskell, a legendary critic, understood the greatness of Anna Karina, and I was sure that whatever fell into the cracks of that understanding, she’d have Karina pull out. 

Haskell was oddly hyper. She was constantly interrupting Karina, with all good intentions, reiterating, adding to, or clarifying what Karina was saying. But the result was unnerving. In a way it was the exact opposite of what occurred the night before. Melissa Anderson let Anna go on and on. Molly Haskell kept interjecting. 

But then Haskell mentioned something potentially revelatory. In 1962’s Vivre sa viethere is a scene where a young man (voiced by Godard himself) reads to Karina’s character from Edgar Allen Poe's "The Oval Portrait.”  As Haskell describes, it's about a painter so obsessed with his painting “that he neglects everything and the portrait becomes so real that the subject dies.”  Haskell says to Karina, “the idea is that [Godard] is using up his people as material. Using them up. And that’s the tension between the artist and the person being used. But with you, there’s no sense of you being used.”

Yes! That’s it! I wanted to shout. But how? How did she mange to pull that off? Molly, ask her how! 

It didn’t happen.

Online that night, I noticed an Anna Karina fan on Twitter had posted her ideas for questions she was hoping to ask Anna during the Q&A for her last event at Film Forum. The three questions were clearly from a true fan and, just based on my observations of the week so far, bound to be answerable to Anna. In fact, she'd delight in answering any of them. "...but I'd never have the courage to ask," the fan wrote. I hoped she was wrong. I was anxious for someone to toss her something new, something that would make her have to reach deep for an answer. 

The marvelous new DCP of Band of Outsiders was simply breathtaking. It was fun to notice Odile lick her lips quickly, the same way I've seen the the real life Anna Karina do it a number of times during the week. Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum’s repertory director and founder of Rialto Pictures, was all smiles as Karina joined him under the screen. Goldstein’s interview style quickly establishes a comfortable rapport with his subjects, but he was a celebrator, not a digger. One of his first questions: "So how did you meet Godard?"

I took a deep breath and tried to remain as even-tempered as Anna Karina telling the story of her coming to Paris for the third or fourth time this week. Remarkably, she retold it as if no one had ever asked her that question before. I scanned the crowd. Why was I getting so wound up about all this? I could tell most had never heard this story before.

I spotted that fan who posted her questions online. Her light fuchsia hair gave her away. She seemed nervous. It was looking unlikely that Karina would hear any of her questions. 

At least Film Forum tried to make it an event. They showed one of Anna Karina's early soap commercials, had her comment on some of her other movies as a slide show of their posters was shown, and ended it all with a photo collage of Karina through the years set to the song Ma ligne de chance from Pierrot le fou. Anna was in such a hurry to leave ("Tomorrow we go back to Paris," she told us) that she and her entourage watched the montage standing up, with their coats on, looking practically over their shoulder, one foot out the door. It was the only time all week where I saw even a hint of impatience, and I couldn’t blame her at all.

As it ended I heard Dennis say "That was wonderful." And with that, Anna Karina was ushered away, back to France, back to ‘reclusivity,’ back to my fantasies. But they're different now. Rather than dreaming of some future moment with her, I fantasize about re-doing this week, pushing back when she evades my questions, following up when something is left hanging, negotiating with her people so Caveh could have another half-hour. Living with the mystery was tolerable when there was no hope of interaction. But having had the chance at discovery and coming up short is unbearable.

On the way out of the theater, the fuchia-haired fan who didn't ask her questions was ahead of me, rushing out the door. She seemed upset, distraught at her missed opportunity. I felt bad for her. I exited and turned to see where she went. I was wrong. There was no lamenting. She'd been rushing to get on the line that was now down the block. Vivre sa vie was about to begin. She was heading back in there with Anna Karina, the timeless one, back into the dark room to embrace the mystery of her. 

I tried to let this inspire me. Maybe the only real answer is somewhere on the screen. If we really want to know what was inside Anna Karina that made her capable of this greatness, if we want to find out how she made it happen, how she did it, we must embrace the mystery. And the only place to do that is in the dark.

Vivre sa vie

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