Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina
Celebrities in love, overanalyzed by a newly married woman.
The first time Jean-Luc Godard asked Anna Karina to take her clothes off, she refused. The director was casting his debut feature, Breathless. Karina was Danish, a model, not yet twenty; she’d hitchhiked to Paris at seventeen and learned French by going to the movies. Godard, ten years older, was a contributor to the influential film journal Cahiers du cinéma alongside other future auteurs of the French New Wave: Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol. Truffaut had just released The 400 Blows; Godard, who had a few shorts to his name, was playing catch-up.
Godard spotted Karina in an ad for soap, got her contact information, summoned her to his office, and offered her a small role in Breathless: the ex-girlfriend from whom the lead, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, steals money. Because Belmondo grabs the cash while the woman is undressing, the part would have required Karina to, in Godard biographer Richard Brody’s delicate language, “bare her breasts.” Karina refused. Godard, according to Karina’s own account in Vogue earlier this year, protested. “But I saw you in a soap [ad] like that,” he said. (Karina had been in a bathtub, covered in bubbles.) “I wasn’t nude,” she told him. “That was your imagination. You just saw a little bit of a shoulder, but I had a big bathing suit underneath.”
Karina took the lead in Godard’s second film, Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier), but not before asking him, as Brody reports in Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, “whether she would have to get undressed.” (“No,” Godard assured her; “it’s a political film.”) Le Petit Soldat was the first of seven Godard films in which she would star, including some of his best known: A Woman Is a Woman, Band of Outsiders, and Pierrot le fou. Karina’s mother had to come from Denmark to sign the contracts, since the actress was only nineteen and, according to French contract law, still a minor.
The first time Jean-Luc Godard told Anna Karina he loved her, she left the man she was seeing to be with him. Godard and Karina were in Geneva filming Le Petit Soldat. Karina had brought along her then-boyfriend, Ghislain Dussart, but she was falling in love with Godard. “We’d stop the film, and we’d look at each other all the time,” Karina told filmmaker Caveh Zahedi earlier this year. “It was very slow, little by little, falling in love little by little, [being] attracted to him, coming closer. I don’t know how to explain that.”
One night, when she and Ghislain (who went by — and maybe this explains everything — “Jicky”) were out at dinner, Godard stopped by. He passed Karina a note under the table: “I love you. Rendez-vous at the Café de la paix, at midnight.” “I packed my bags” — the bags Karina had brought to Geneva for the shoot; she and Jicky were staying together — “and I left everything, like a sleepwalker, swept away by him,” Karina told the French newspaper Libération in 2001. At midnight she found Godard at the café, reading a paper. “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 or two minutes. And then suddenly he said, ‘Oh here you are. Let’s go.’”
When the shoot ended, Godard and Karina drove back to Paris. When they reached the city, Godard asked Karina where she would like to be dropped off. “You can’t leave me,” Karina responded. “I’ve left everything for you, now I’m staying with you.”
They were married in March of 1961, and divorced in December of 1964. These two moments — Karina refusing the older, more powerful Godard’s request; Godard presumptuously but successfully confessing his love to the already taken Karina — would set the tone for their tumultuous union. Godard wasn’t exactly controlling, but he did want to be in control — wanted the freedom to, for example, leave his wife for weeks at a time without offering prior warning or explanation; to be the only director for whom she would act. He seems, at times, to have had trouble conceiving of Karina as a woman with desires of her own. And Karina was only sometimes comfortable pretending this was the case.
Shortly after the wedding, Karina miscarried. Godard discovered her at home in Paris “in great distress and covered in blood . . . the fetus,” Brody reports, “had been dead for three weeks.” During the convalescence that followed, Godard was a less than ideal spouse. “Jean-Luc was almost never there,” Karina would later say. “He would say he was going out for cigarettes and then come back three weeks later,” Karina told The Guardian in January. “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.”
In November of 1961, Karina told Godard she was leaving him to marry the actor Jacques Perrin. Godard, in response, destroyed almost everything in their apartment — including Karina’s teddy bears, but not her clothes because, according to Godard, “it would have hurt her too much.” After he left, she reportedly overdosed on barbiturates; Perrin was the one who found her. (This was the first of two suicides she would attempt during their marriage.)
While Karina recovered, Godard searched for Perrin; his plan was to settle things over a game of dice. According to Brody, they ended up playing poker, “but the game was interrupted by a struggle with photographers.” Godard didn’t literally win his wife back, but he and Karina did reconcile. In his next movie, Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live), Karina — as if doing penance — played a woman who abandons her husband, becomes a prostitute, and ends up dead.
Vivre sa vie isn’t the only movie in which Godard stages a version of his own marital drama for the camera. (Almost every movie in which she stars — even after the couple split for good — can be read as a rehashing of their relationship. Perhaps the most poignant example: in Alphaville, the sci-fi noir released in 1965, shortly after they divorced, Karina’s character has to learn the word “love.” The film ends with her telling the male lead, “I love you.”) However, the most famous one, Contempt, doesn’t feature Karina.
In Contempt, Michel Piccoli plays a screenwriter named Paul Javal; Brigitte Bardot plays his wife, Camille. Paul is adapting The Odyssey for a bloviating American producer. Early in the film, Camille becomes convinced that Paul is allowing — even encouraging — the producer to flirt with her. This disgusts her — at the end of the film, Camille and the producer run away together. They are — per the logic of a number of Godard films in which the faithless woman is swiftly punished — almost immediately killed in a car crash.
The middle third of the movie is consumed by an argument during which Bardot wears the wig Karina wore in Vivre sa vie. Some of the dialogue is taken directly from real arguments Karina had with Godard. Piccoli wore, during filming, Godard’s tie, hat, shoes, jacket, and socks. “In Contempt,” Raul Coutard, Godard’s cinematographer, claimed that the director was “trying to explain something to his wife.” For Brody, the “something” has to do with “the cinema, where Godard’s work curdles Karina’s feelings for him and drives the couple apart.” Watching the film now, it’s hard not to side with Camille — that is, Karina. Paul is distant and dismissive throughout: precisely the kind of man who would leave his wife to recuperate from a miscarriage alone.
Contempt was filmed in Rome and Capri, so Godard and Karina were separated for much of the shoot, though he would often go back to Paris on weekends to see her. Once, Karina visited the set in Rome and the couple went to a nightclub. “Someone invited me to dance,” Karina told Brody, “I went, and when I came back, [Godard] gave me a slap in the face, in front of everybody, because I had danced with this other man. But I wasn’t angry — it was proof of his love. I kissed him afterward, because it proved that he loved me.”
It’s tempting to assume that Karina — the young, beautiful actress-muse — was powerless in their relationship. Certainly as her director, Godard exerted a great deal of control over the characters she played and the plots to which they were subjected. Brody mounts a convincing case for several of Godard’s films as allegories of the dangers of infidelity, made all the more potent (or, perhaps, cruel) for the fact that his sometimes unfaithful wife was starring in them. He also sees, in their collaborations, signs of jealousy: a desire on Godard’s part to prevent his wife from becoming a professional actress, except in those films in which he directed her. Karina, for her part, didn’t court Godard’s jealousy, but she did crave his attention; because this was so sporadic, she seems to have learned to be grateful for his flashes of passion — even when that passion was tinged with violence.
She did leave him, in the end — that power she did have. More than twenty years later, in 1987, they appeared on a talk show together. The conversation begins cordially, the interviewer expressing surprise that they’ve barely spoken in two decades. But Karina soon grows visibly uncomfortable; she smiles too widely, her eyes dart around the room. “Can one ever be as happy afterwards?” the interviewer asks. “Can this great love that was given …” Karina breaks in: “One can, but differently.” But then, Godard: “I think that one can be much happier.” Karina left the stage in tears before Godard could finish his next sentence. Perhaps he was being truthful, if insensitive. But perhaps he was being mean, which is to say: perhaps he’s still wounded by his inability to control, in life, the woman he controlled on film.
Miranda Popkey is a writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.