The Magical Presence of Anna Karina

More Than Godard's Muse

by Jon Lisi

15 October 2014

It’s not that Anna Karina couldn’t act, but that she didn’t have to. Her physical presence was the art, and her beauty, in and of itself, was a significant contribution to the culture.
 

There is a touching moment in Richard Brody’s biography of Jean-Luc Godard, Everything Is Cinema, in which he describes the blossoming romance between Godard and Anna Karina. The year was 1960, and Godard was about to begin work on À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960). At the time, Karina had a boyfriend, and she was modeling in various commercials. Godard saw one of the commercials, became attracted to Karina, and asked her to meet with him. They met, and he offered her a role in À bout de souffle, which she turned down because she refused to take her clothes off for the part.

Three months later, Godard asked Karina to star in his next film, Le Petit Soldat (1963), and she agreed. As Godard and Karina were shooting Le Petit Soldat in Geneva, Godard slipped Karina a note that said, “I love you. Rendezvous at midnight at the Café de la Prez.” Later that evening, Karina decided to leave her boyfriend and meet Godard. As the story concludes, Karina and Godard finished shooting Le Petit Soldat and returned to Paris together. They married in 1961, and their emotionally intense relationship continued until they divorced in 1964.

If you’re a cinephile, chances are that you’ve seen the collaborations between Karina and Godard, not merely because the films are situated within the now iconic la Nouvelle Vague, but because they’re among the most playful, joyous films ever created. However, most of the credit is given to Godard, and not enough people are willing to acknowledge Karina’s contributions to cinema in general and Godard’s oeuvre, in particular.

This problematic omission stems from the general acceptance of the auteur theory, which more or less defined the ideology of the French New Wave. Filmmaker François Truffaut elevated the importance of the director in his 1954 essay, “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema”, in which he coined the term “la politique des Auteurs” to refer to filmmakers like Jean Renoir and Jacques Tati who expressed a distinct cinematic style and often developed the screenplays for their films.

Film critic Andrew Sarris subsequently introduced an expanded version of the theory to the United States with his essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962”. According to Sarris, the director gives a film a distinctive quality, and he claims that “the way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels.”

Much has been written to either support or denounce the auteur theory since its establishment, and it’s not worth getting into every single response. In general, it’s fair to say that filmmaking is a collaborative practice, but there’s no denying that certain filmmakers mark their projects with a personal stamp. We can’t always explain it, but we know an auteur when we see one. The problem, however, is that we place too much of an emphasis on the director’s authority and not enough on the contributions of performers.

This applies to Godard, who is arguably the most revered auteur besides Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. It’s understandable that critics give Godard all of the artistic credit, especially considering that the auteur theory was started by Cahiers du Cinéma, but we must not forget the artistry of performers like Karina who elevated his films in meaningful ways.

Karina was more than Godard’s muse, and we must acknowledge that she contributed significantly to his cinema. Unlike a muse, who serves as inspiration for an artist, Karina worked with Godard in active collaboration, and her performances are essential to his filmography. She was at once beautiful and vulnerable, sexy and mysterious, and she paved the way for what is often called the “artist’s model”.

Like an actress, the artist’s model can appear in motion pictures, but the emphasis is on physical presence. Whereas an actress often inhabits a character and wants the audience to guess what she is feeling or thinking, an artist’s model forgoes character to focus on the aesthetics of performance and the myriad ways a human face and body can be articulated.

A number of scholars in cinema studies have been critical of this, most notably Laura Mulvey, who opposes the exhibition of women on screen in her hugely influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, published in 1975. According to Mulvey, “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” As a result, Mulvey denies the artistry of female performers who display beauty and glamour because, in her view, they reinforce patriarchy’s objectification of women.

This position is well-intentioned, but it undermines the contributions of countless women like Karina whose exhibitionism is directly related to their art (and explains why Mulvey and cinema studies have moved somewhat away from it, although not far enough, in my view). As humanities scholar Camille Paglia claims in a scathing counter-argument, “The idea that a man looking at or a director filming a beautiful woman makes her an object, makes her passive beneath the male gaze which seeks control over woman by turning her into mere matter, into ‘meat’… was formulated by people who knew nothing about the history of painting or sculpture, the history of the fine arts. It was an a priori theory.” (“The Savage id”, Salon 13 August 1999)

Paglia’s point connects to a larger issue in cultural criticism, which is that aesthetic appreciation has been pushed aside for ideological criticism. That is, the beauty of an artwork is no longer of interest, and instead, critics look for ways that a dominant ideology silences opposing ideologies in an artwork, hence the consistent classification of beautiful women exhibited in cinema as objects of a punishing male gaze.

While ideological criticism of the arts can be useful at times, too often it throws out the baby with the bathwater. For example, ideological critics may dismiss Gone With the Wind (1939) for its racist perpetuation of the mammy archetype, without acknowledging the film’s impressive cinematography, art direction, costume design, and iconic performances by Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. It’s as if the entire artwork is denounced because of one problematic aspect.

This same logic applies to those who criticize Godard’s representation of Karina, thereby ignoring her important role as a performer, and denying her autonomy as the one who voluntarily placed herself in the exhibitionist role, and the one who has the power over the audience. Ideological criticism inevitably becomes ahistorical hyperbole.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the publication of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, and “the male gaze” argument, with its punitive perspective on aesthetic appreciation, continues to capture the attention of contemporary critics. For example, French film scholar Geneviѐve Sallier appropriates Mulvey’s thesis to directly attack La Nouvelle Vague filmmakers like Godard in her book Masculine Singular: French New Wave Cinema. Sallier’s claim, that women are portrayed in la Nouvelle Vague films as the objectified other, is indicative of an intellectual culture that fails to look beyond identity politics.

All of this, despite the fact that Karina said in a 2010 interview with LA Weekly that the films she made with Godard were “presents from Jean-Luc to me.” (“Sexual Politics: Godard and Me”, 15 April 2010) There’s no talk of objectification or victimization, and no discussion whatsoever of Godard’s male gaze. This is important to keep in mind, and now is a propitious time to consider how Godard’s camera lovingly captured Karina’s presence in ways that few filmmakers have been able to do since.

Although Le Petit Soldat was shot in 1960, it wasn’t released until 1963, thereby making Une femme est une femme (1961) the first Karina and Godard film to which most audiences were introduced. It’s a playful homage to the Hollywood musical, and Godard’s first film to be shot in color and Cinemascope.

In the clip below, Karina performs one of the film’s memorable musical numbers. The purpose of this scene is to highlight her beauty and allure. It’s no surprise that Godard was enamored by his wife, and in a playful attempt at reflexivity, he cuts to various men who can’t take their eyes off of her, just as many moviegoers in the audience likely couldn’t look away, as well.


In the above scene, Karina and Godard show that the cinematic experience is inherently voyeuristic, and much of its magic derives from the pleasure of gazing at beautiful people. In this regard, Karina’s performance is fascinating for the way it acknowledges this truth. She looks into the camera numerous times throughout the scene, as if to remind us that we’re watching a film, that she’s a performer, and that our voyeurism is expected and perhaps even welcomed. Her greatest contribution to cinema, I believe, is her acknowledgment of the spectator’s scopophilia, and her willingness to elicit it with every movement. This, more than anything else, is the task of the artist’s model.

Unlike Une femme est une femme, which emphasizes Karina’s overall physical appeal, Vivre sa vie (1962) focuses specifically on Karina’s face. In the clip below, her face is preserved in cinematic space and time like a rare artifact at a museum.


Film theorist Béla Balázs defines close-ups as “the pictures expressing the poetic sensibility of the director.” Balázs is correct to call attention to the poetry of the close-up, but I believe that the close-up instead expresses the poetic sensibility of the performer. The director may make the decision to shoot in a close-up, but the performer is ultimately the one that creates the magic.

Throughout cinema history, the close-up has excited cinephiles. While some close-ups reveal a hidden truth about a character’s interior state, others like the ones used in Vivre sa vie exist to illustrate the face as a work of art, almost as if encountering it were a religious experience.

French critic Roland Barthes wonderfully describes the experience of encountering the close-up of a face, and he credits the performer (in this case Greta Garbo) with eliciting an erotic, sensory reaction. In his essay “The Face of Garbo”, Barthes writes, “Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy.” Moreover, Barthes goes on to claim that “Garbo’s face represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archetype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces, when the clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman.”

Based on this passage, Barthes isn’t interested in what the close-up reveals about a character’s interior state, but the cinephilic experience of encountering the beauty of the face. The pleasure of the aesthetic is central to Karina’s contribution to cinema as an artist’s model, and to undermine it as objectification is to deny not only Karina’s powerful hold on the audience, but one of the main reasons why many of us continue to go to the movies.

My personal favorite Karina and Godard moment is from Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965), one of the last films they made together. Like their other collaborations, they are less interested in telling a story and more interested in creating beautiful images. The clip below plays like a love letter, and it’s surely one of the “presents” Godard gave to Karina. The gift is precisely her beauty immortalized at its zenith for cinephiles to cherish until the end of time. As long as people continue to watch and love movies, they will return to this moment again and again, if only to hold onto that feeling which is by default ephemeral and fleeting.


Karina wasn’t the first artist’s model in cinema, but she’s one of the few that played into the audience’s expectations. It’s not that she couldn’t act, but that she didn’t have to. The idea is that her physical presence was the art, and her beauty, in and of itself, was a significant contribution to the culture. A contemporary example of an artist’s model would be someone like Tilda Swinton, who works mostly with experimental artists and refuses to label herself as an actress. Like Karina, Swinton is interested in aesthetics, and watching her on screen gives rise to a sensual experience that cannot be fully explained.

For decades, Godard has been hailed as one of cinema’s most important artists, and in the process, Karina has been overlooked. It’s about time that she is rediscovered for a new generation of cinephiles to be captivated by her magical presence.

Splash image: Jean-Luc Godard & Anna Karina

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