Back in the day, Anna Karina was Godard’s inspiration: his private passion and his public play-thing (and sometimes vice-versa). The pair married in 1961, divorced in 1965 and made eight films together, from Le Petit Soldat through to Made in USA. These roles would prove to be the making of her – although she, by the same token, was the making of them. Whatever Godard required, Karina provided. She could be headstrong and wayward, gorgeous and broken. She was theeffervescent free spirit of the French new wave, with all of the scars that the position entails. “There were a lot of ups and downs in my life,” she concedes. “And the downs were, you know, very down. Very low.”
More than half a century after snapping her fingers in Bande à Part, Karina is attending a Godard retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank. She is now 75 and comes haring down the corridor like a fugitive from justice – swaddled in a trenchcoat and scarf, her head engulfed by a tan fedora. One hand clutches a glass of rosé wine. The other points the way to the green room and comparative safety.
The publicist wants to know what she wants for lunch. “Voilà,” she says. “And, yes, another glass of wine.”
While she studies the menu, I scan the BFI programme. It describes Karina as “Godard’s muse” – fine for the purposes of the retrospective but it rather ignores all the work she has done since. Besides, it must stick in the craw, being described as a muse. It seems such an antiquated, condescending label, as though the woman only exists to facilitate the great man.
But Karina disagrees; she likes being the muse. “How could I not be honoured?” she asks me, aghast. “Maybe it’s too much, it sounds so pompous. But of course I’m always very touched to hear people say that. Because Jean-Luc gave me a gift to play all of those parts. It was like Pygmalion, you know? I was Eliza Doolittle and he was the teacher.” At this, she briefly channels Henry Higgins. “By Jove,” she says. “I think she’s got it.”
I think she does herself a disservice. Godard himself has described her as a “woman of action”, an active collaborator in those early pictures. Her backstory, too, is full of gumption and grit. Born and raised in Denmark, Karina spent four years in foster care and then hitchhiked to Paris aged just 17. She begged neighbourhood priests to find her somewhere to sleep and then taught herself French by going to the movies. A talent scout spotted her outside Les Deux Magots, after which she began modelling for Coca-Cola and Pepsodent, Pierre Cardin and Palmolive soap. Back then her name was still Hanne Blarke Bayer. The designer Coco Chanel recommended she change it to something more dramatic.
Click fingers, jump-cut: it is now the early 1960s. Karina has played a pro-Algerian activist in Le Petit Soldat and picked up an award at Berlin for her role inUne Femme est une Femme. She and Godard are the city’s most fashionable couple, feted and fawned over wherever they go. It sounds like a fairytale, but the reality verged on a nightmare.
The actor grins ruefully. “Nightmare!” she says. “Well, yes, sometimes it was, I could never understand his behaviour. He would say he was going out for cigarettes and then come back three weeks later. And at that time, as a woman, you didn’t have any chequebooks, you didn’t have any money. So he was off seeing Ingmar Bergman in Sweden or William Faulkner in America. And I was sitting around the apartment without any food.”
All of which sounds bad enough. But ploughing further through Karina’s press cuttings, one finds passing references to infidelity, a miscarriage, an overdose of barbiturates. I’m not sure how much of this is true, or whether the ingredients of an amour-fou drama have somehow managed to get themselves confused with real life.
“No, it’s true,” says Karina. “I had some bad times. We got married because, you know, I was pregnant. But then I lost the baby. Ups and downs. And then when Bande à Part came along, I was in a really bad shape. I didn’t want to be alive anymore. I had tried to commit suicide and so they sent me to a crazy house.”
An institution? “Well, yeah,” she continues. “And I wasn’t crazy at all. But it was a bad situation at that time for women – you could be there forever. But an analyst helped to get me out. Then Jean-Luc came by and said, ‘Oh, you’re shooting tomorrow.’ Bande à Part. Crime movie. Heist movie. That movie probably saved my life.”
Karina says that she always liked acting because acting involves becoming different people. Her life, she allows, has been one of constant reinvention. She fled Denmark for Paris because she disliked her home life (her mother ran up debts, her stepfather was abusive. “I can say all this now because everybody is dead”). It followed that she would eventually move on from Godard as well.
If Karina was a muse, she might have faded out at this point. Instead, it appears she went from strength to strength – collaborating with Serge Gainsbourg on a brace of pop hits (Roller Girl, Sous le Soleil Exactement), writing three novels and producing what may be her finest performance, in Jacques Rivette’s controversial La religieuse, playing a rebellious novice nun at loggerheads with the church. Karina’s eyes widen at the mention of this. “You remember that film?”
In 1972, she turned her hand to writing and directing. Vivre Ensemble was a flimsy, flyweight counter-culture comedy that played at the Cannes film festival and found itself hauled over the coals. “Lots of resistance. People really didn’t like it. ‘What is she doing here? This is not her job, she should stay being an actress.’ But I just wanted to see if I could do it, that’s all. And I wrote novels. And did singing – two albums, or did I say that already?” She makes a face. “I don’t sing anymore. I guess I’m getting old.”
Godard, of course, has moved on as well. Following his split with Karina, the director’s films became more experimental, more enigmatic, culminating in the jumbled “Navajo English” of Film Socialisme and the 3D jigsaw of Goodbye to Language. “I like the earlier ones better,” Karina admits. “The earlier ones are human, the later ones abstract. Like Cubist paintings – not so fun. One day in Los Angeles, I went to a museum and paid $25 and what did I see? White cubes! What’s going on? I go back to the ticket booth and said: ‘I want my money back. I don’t want to look at white cubes.’”
She hasn’t seen Godard for years. She says he lives as a recluse; she doesn’t think he sees anyone. I ask what she would say if the director called up to suggest that they make one last film together and she laughs; she knows it is not going to happen. “I am the old story. L’histoire ancienne. But an old story can still be a good story, no?”
• The Godard season runs at the BFI Southbank until 16 March
• Jean-Luc Godard: the Essential Collection is released on Blu-Ray on 1 February