Anna Karina, Radiant Actress and Jean-Luc Godard Muse, Dies at 79

Anna Karina-Photofest-H 2019
Pathé Contemporary Films/Photofest

She starred for her then-husband in such 1960s French classics as 'A Woman Is a Woman,' 'Pierrot le Fou' and 'Alphaville.'

Anna Karina, the French New Wave starlet who rose to international acclaim in films directed by her then-husband Jean-Luc Godard, has died. She was 79.

Karina died Saturday at 2:38 p.m. in Paris of cancer, her agent, Laurent Balandras, told The Hollywood Reporter. Her husband, Dennis Berry, was by her side.

She and Godard were married from 1961 to 1964, and she served as his muse in such memorable works as A Woman Is a Woman (1961) — for which she received a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival — Vivre sa vie (1962), Band of Outsiders (1964), Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Alphaville (1965).

The actress' productive career was not limited to the movies of Godard, however. Karina accumulated more than 50 feature credits, working with other major auteurs like Jacques Rivette, Luchino Visconti, Chris Marker, Volker Schlöndorff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

She also headlined a number of English-language productions, including Guy Green's The Magus (1968), J. Lee Thompson's Before Winter Comes (1968), George Cukor's Justine (1969), Tony Richardson's Laughter in the Dark (1969) and Jean-Yves Prate's Regina Roma (1982), in which she starred alongside Anthony Quinn and Ava Gardner.

A former fashion model and actress in commercials, Karina had a side career as a French pop chanteuse, releasing two singles and an album for the 1967 musical Anna, with songs composed by Serge Gainsbourg. She released another album, Une histoire d'amour, in 1999, as well as two musical adaptations of classic stories by Hans Christian Andersen.

Born Hanne-Karine Blarke Bayer in Copenhagen in 1940, Karina was raised by her grandparents and her mother, who ran a clothing store. She began modeling at age 15 for Danish fashion magazines and was an extra on a few dozen movies.

When she was just shy of 18, Karina decided to try her luck in Paris. She was soon discovered by a modeling scout and began posing for such French fashion magazines as Elle and Marie Claire while also being featured in ads for Palmolive, Pepsodent and Coca-Cola.

It was during a run-in with Coco Chanel in 1958 that Hanne-Karine changed her name to Anna Karina, which the fashion designer told her sounded better. She used the moniker for her movie career, which began in earnest in 1961 with A Woman Is a Woman — just Godard's second feature to be released — and lasted until 2008 with Victoria, a road movie she directed as well as starred in.

The initial encounter between Godard, the enfant terrible of the French New Wave who was about to make his 1960 breakthrough masterpiece Breathless, and the young and unknown Danish model-actress did not go smoothly. It would serve as a preview of the fiery professional and personal relationship the two would have over the next six years.

Godard saw Karina in a commercial and tried to cast her for a small role in Breathless. When he told her she would have to take her clothes off in front of the camera, she walked off the project, telling her friends that he was nothing more than a thug.

Still, the director went after her again, offering her the lead in Le Petit Soldat (made in 1960 but not released until 1963), in which she played a young heroine, Veronica Dreyer, who falls for an undercover French agent (Michel Subor) in Geneva during the Algerian War.

Known for his orneriness on the set, Godard nearly brought Karina to tears when shooting one of the film's best sequences, where she is interrogated by her lover and subjected to an impromptu photo seance. The production of Le Petit Soldat lasted for two months and was beset with problems, yet by the end of it, Godard and Karina had fallen in love.

The two married in March 1961, with a first ceremony taking place in Switzerland and a second one in Paris that was attended by a who's who of French cinema at the time: François Truffaut, Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy, Jean-Pierre Melville, Jacques Rivette and Godard producer Georges de Beauregard. The wedding photos made the cover of the tabloid Paris Match under the headline "The New Wave Bride."

But their euphoria was short-lived. Karina, who was already pregnant at the time, lost the baby a few months later and became sterile. The remainder of their marriage was marked by an intense cinematic collaboration and a highly contemptuous offscreen relationship filled with reports of bitter disputes and extramarital affairs.

Still, some of their greatest work was done during that period: the deconstructed musical comedy A Woman Is a Woman, co-starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Claude Brialy; the stark black-and-white street drama Vivre sa vie, where Karina lights up the screen as a Paris prostitute; the tragic political pop thriller Pierrot le Fou, also with Belmondo; and the experimental sci-fi flick Alphaville.

The Godard-Karina alliance often has been compared to history's other major collaborations between filmmakers and actresses — Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich; Ingmar Bergman and Harriet Andersson; Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth; and Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, among them. The Nouvelle Vague couple was one of the more prolific of the bunch, making seven features and a short during their brief time together.

Karina branched out to other directors and countries, working with Roger Vadim (1964's La Ronde), Rivette (1966's The Nun) and Michel Deville (1966's Tender Sharks) in France; Valerio Zurlini (1965's The Camp Followers) and Visconti (1967's The Stranger) in Italy; and Schlöndorff (1969's Michael Kohlhaas) and Fassbinder (1976's Chinese Roulette) in Germany.

In 1967, she released the hit singles "Roller Girl" and "Sous le soleil exactement," both written by Gainsbourg for Pierre Koralnik's Anna, which was broadcast on French television that year. Karina would continue to work as a singer in the decades that followed, performing live and releasing a second album.

After Godard, she was married to actor Pierre Fabre, actor-director Daniel Duval and writer-director Berry, who would cast her in his features Last Song (1987) and Chloé (1996), the latter alongside a young Marion Cotillard.

More than two decades after her divorce from Godard, Karina was thrown into a surprise reunion with him on a 1987 episode of the French talk show Lunettes noires pour nuits blanches, hosted by Thierry Ardisson. Obviously caught off-guard, she froze and broke out into tears, walking off the set before returning a few minutes later to have Godard tell her, "You don't come on TV to cry."

In 2017, Karina was crowned Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Speaking with Filmmaker magazine a year earlier, she reflected on what it was like to work with Godard, who was 10 years her senior, in the heyday of the French New Wave.

"Things have changed," she said. "But at the time, if you were a woman, you didn't really have a voice. If you were a woman it was just, 'Be beautiful and shut up.'"

Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.