The legendary style icon and French New Wave heroine Anna Karina has died.
We’re deeply saddened to hear today of the death of one of our most beloved figures, Anna Karina, aged 79. A legendary figure of the French New Wave, Karina was the epitome of cool – no one has ever come close – and seems to sum up European Sixties cinema more than any other figure.
Everything about Karina seems the stuff of legend. Growing up in Denmark, Hanne Karin Bayer, as she was then, left home at seventeen and hitch-hiked to Paris, where she arrived unable to speak French and without a penny to her name. Living on the streets, she was eventually approached by an advertising agency scout and quickly became a successful model. She says it was Coco Chanel who helped her devise her new identity as Anna Karina (a name that porn star Sasha Grey once pondered using as her non-de-porn out of love for Karina’s work, before wisely deciding that it might not be seen as the most respectful way of paying tribute).
Jean-Luc Godard, casting for he debut film Breathless, saw a series of Palmolive ads featuring Karina, and tried to cast her in a nude scene in the film. When she refused, he pointed out that she had posed naked in the ads, only for her to apparently respond “are you mad? I was wearing a bathing suit in those ads—the soapsuds went up to my neck. It was in your mind that I was undressed.” She didn’t get the role, but Godard was impressed with her enough to cast her in Le Petit Soldat the next year, after which they were married.
As the golden couple of La Nouvelle Vague, their work together was amongst the best of the era: Une Femme Est Une Femme, Vivre Sa Vie, Band à Part, Alphaville, Pierrot Le Fou and Made in USA. But while Karina was undoubtedly Godard’s muse at the time, she also worked with most of the other great names of French and European cinema at the time, appearing in Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse, Roger Vadim’s La Ronde, Luchino Visconti’s The Stranger, Jean Aurel’s Lamiel and Volker Schlöndorff’s Man on Horseback, as well as English language (and international co-productions for directors like Tony Richardson (Laughter in the Dark), George Cukor and Joseph Strick (Justine) and Guy Green (The Magus).
One of her most entertaining projects in the 1960s was the psychedelic TV musical Anna, made in 1967, which gave her two hit singles and led to an album Une Histoire D’Amour and a French tour. Karina never quite embraced a pop music career in the way that Brigitte Bardot did, but her brief music excursions are nevertheless significant moments in French pop history. She also wrote four novels: Vivre ensemble (1973), Golden City (1983), On n’achète pas le soleil (1988), and Jusqu’au bout du hasard (1998).
Having arguably learned from the best, Karina set up a production studion in 1972 and made her directorial debut with Vivre Ensemble; it was a career diversion rather than switch, as she continued acting throughout the 1970s and 1980s, though she would return to the director’s chair in 2008 with Victoria, in which she also took the lead role. her post-Sixties films are, perhaps inevitably, less interesting, though she did work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the middle of the decade.
But we might argue that all the work is overshadowed by Karina herself, the ultimate style icon of an era – and beyond. If there was such a thing as an It Girl for the arthouse scene, then she was it, her looks and style seeming to be the height of sophisticated, free spirited French cool. She was unquestionably beautiful, but Karina was less a sex symbol in the way that contemporaries like Bardot was, and much more an aspirational figure for young women who dreamed of a life discussing revolutionary politics, art and cinema while looking impossibly, apparently artlessly cool as they peruse the Bouquinistes on the banks of the Seine. Karina’s look was shabby chic before it was a thing, the charity shop mix ‘n’ match style made to look so effortless than even today, it continues to frustrate the people who try and fail to recreate that casual hipness. You either have it or you don’t, and Karina had it in spades.
When I think of Sixties French cinema, I always think of Karina in Une Femme Est Une Femme – not the film so much, just her (and I do love the film as a whole). I think without her presence, that whole movement would have been whole lot less more interesting and memorable. She may not have been so much Godard’s muse as the entire new wave’s muse, even for those works where she is not present. You can see Karina recreated by other actresses in many of the movies of the era, her style and free spirit infecting them. The world is a duller place without her presence.
Anna Karina 1940 – 1979