Any time she was interviewed about her work in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, whose collaborations with her are the primary source of her fame, Anna Karina (1940-2019) always seemed happy to remember them. If she ever minded being associated so closely with Godard’s oeuvre, she never showed it. With that in mind, The Criterion Channel’s Starring Anna Karina series still feels like it’s letting her down by presenting six performances with only one not in a Godard film.
Born in Denmark and possessing that haunting Nordic beauty and delicate accent when she worked in French, she brought a lack of specificity to Godard’s investigations of post-war Paris and its soulless commercialism with her roles in films Alphaville (her most iconic) and Made in U.S.A. However, for other directors, like the Jacques Rivette film in this collection, she also displayed enormous depths of warmth and sensitivity while showing off a canny intelligence in movies like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Chinese Roulette.
Here are the films currently streaming, in Starring Anna Karina ranked in order of preference.
Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
My favourite Godard film, this one has all his favourite tricks: the rebellion against linear narratives, the outspoken opinions on the Vietnam war, the tirade against commercialism, and the lament over cinema’s increasing lack of reliance on artistic ingenuity. However, it packages it all beautifully in gorgeous cinematography and two very sexy stars. Anna Karina has no end of fun playing off Jean-Paul Belmondo, at his most beautiful, as two ex-lovers reunited by circumstance who go on a violent rampage across France.
The Nun (Jacques Rivette, 1966)
One of my favourite Rivette movies and one of Karina’s finest performances. Karina stars as a young woman whose family stuck her in a nunnery because of dire financial straits. Her picaresque tale covers her years within convent walls, greatly influenced by the changes in leadership overseeing her. As she comes into an awareness of her own desire to be more than what seventeenth-century France will allow, she realizes to her horror that is, as you might guess, not much. A recent remake with Isabelle Huppert failed miserably in comparison with the gleaming energy of this one.
Vivre Sa Vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)
Vivre Sa Vie features Anna Karina’s best performance in a Godard film. Prostitution is seen as the ultimate in capitalist commodification, as bodies are now to be sold across the counter like toothpaste and cereal. However, it’s Godard, so, of course, it also involves intellectual conversations about life and art in cafes. The surprising tenderness of the film is all due to Karina, a scene like watching her react to Maria Falconetti in Passion of Joan of Arc could be trite were it not for her disarming sincerity.
Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
Godard makes contemporary Paris look like a futuristic city without building a single science-fiction set. It’s all done via lighting and camera setups of the new building projects of the city’s banlieu. He combines this retro-future look with a pulp noir story of a detective (Eddie Constantine) who comes to Alphaville from “Atlantique Seeetay” to save it from its tyrannical ruler; Karina, whose look in this film was the primary inspiration for Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, is haunting as the unseen villain’s daughter, who experiences an awakening to the outlawed feelings of love and self-expression that are brought by human connection and art. This was Karina’s second last film with Godard, after which point he would make films with his next partner Anne Wiazemsky, whose similar look but complete lack of substance would reveal that he never really knew what he had in his most famous muse.
A Woman Is a Woman (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)
Of all the films in which Godard turns popular Hollywood genres on their ear, this one is his most delightful, taking a plot that hints at neo-realism (the love triangle involves an exotic dancer and her longing to have a child with her disinterested boyfriend) but placing it against colourful backgrounds and getting Michel Legrand to do the score…and then chopping that score up to pieces. Karina gives the film the style that Godard demands but also enormous depths that he might not have anticipated.
Le Petit Soldat (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
Karina is incidental throughout most of the plot of this rumination on France’s political morality during the Algerian War. Michel Subor stars as a right-wing militant who is suspected of being a double agent by his colleagues and falls in love with Karina as an FLN sympathizer. It’s an opportunity to see her at her least affecte. There’s none of the conscious glamour of her more famous roles, but she doesn’t get to hold court until the end of the film. Even then, is utilized as little more than an opportunity for Godard to male-gaze at her as the Femme Idéale.