'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Anna Karina (French New Wave Legend)

The iconic actress, who was once Jean-Luc Godard's wife and muse, opens up about their rocky relationship (she attempted suicide), the possibility of one last cinematic reunion and much more.
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Anna Karina at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival

"Jean-Luc [Godard] was very difficult to live with," says the legendary French New Wave actress Anna Karina — who was married to the filmmaker from 1961 to 1965 and who starred in seven features and one short for him between 1960 and 1967 — as we sit down to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "He would say, 'I'll come right back,' and then he would not come back for three weeks without giving you any news or leaving you a little bit of money. It's difficult to live for a long long time with somebody like that, even if you love him more than anybody else."

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Karina, who is now 75 and based in Paris, met with me in the midst of a rare trip to the U.S., where she was promoting Rialto Pictures' re-release of her 1964 collaboration with Godard Band of Outsiders and to attend a screening of it at the TCM Classic Film Festival. 55 years after moviegoers first fell in love with her, her voice is a little scratchier (thanks to years of smoking) and her face a little more lined (though she still leaves many, well, breathless), but she's still as cool and open as can be — and, as you can hear for yourself, her memories are as sharp as ever.

Born Hanne Karin Blarke Bayer in Solbjerg, Denmark, Karina had a miserable childhood — abandoned by her father, neglected by her mother and abused by her step-father. She found work as an extra in a number of Danish films, including one that went to Cannes, but eventually fled the country, with a small amount of money given to her by her grandfather, and went to Paris, where she knew not a soul. "When you're so young, you're not afraid," she says with a laugh. There, she fell into modeling (Coco Chanel suggested her new name) and appeared in a soap commercial that caught the eye of Godard, who was preparing his first film, 1959's Breathless. He offered her a small part in the film, but it required nudity, so she declined.

A few months later, she was approached by Godard again, this time to appear in a political film, The Little Soldier. She agreed, and during its making, despite having a boyfriend at the time, she was coaxed into a relationship with Godard, who is 10 years her senior. "I didn't know who I was anymore," she recalls. I was, like, hypnotized." While that film was held up by the censors, he put her in another, the musical comedy A Woman Is a Woman, which was her first to reach audiences — and for which she won the Berlin Film Festival's best actress prize. She became pregnant during the making of that movie, then made My Life to Live with Godard (her bob haircut became iconic) and then lost the baby, "a tragedy" that "really broke me into pieces" and led to "a kind of nervous breakdown" that prompted her to try to take her own life.

Upon her release from a mental hospital, Godard asked her to do Band of Outsiders, an instant classic — with iconic scenes like her and her costars running through the Louvre ("They were furious") and dancing the Madison (it later received an homage in Pulp Fiction) — which she says saved her life. After the film was completed, she and Godard separated, but continued to work together, on Pierrot le Fou (a personal favorite of hers), Alphaville (which subtextually addresses their relationship) and Made in USA, as well as the short The Oldest Profession. By this point their relationship was beyond repair and they parted ways.

Godard has gone on to direct many other films of varying quality ("not really my cup of tea," Karina confesses) and she has starred in films for a number of other major directors — Jacques Rivette on 1966’s The Nun, Luchino Visconti on 1967’s The Stranger, Volker Schlondorff on 1968’s Man on Horseback, George Cukor on 1969’s Justine, Tony Richardson on 1969’s Laughter in the Darker and Rainer Werner Fassbinder on 1976’s Chinese Roulette. But the two will always be remembered for their work together. David Thomson wrote in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, "Godard’s work with Karina is the peak of his art, where he attains a glimpse of emotion that illuminates its omission in the rest of his films." So, if he asked her to do one more, would she be up for it? "Why not?" she says. "Yeah, sure. But that won't happen because I'm the old story."

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