Remembering Anna Karina, the Leading Lady of French New Wave Cinema

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Danish actress Anna Karina plays Marianne Renoir in the Jean-Luc Godard film Pierrot le Fou, or Crazy PetePhoto by Jacques Haillot/Apis/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Anna Karina, the French actor who defined La Nouvelle Vague, died in Paris this week. Here, we remember her legacy

Who? Anna Karina, actor and muse to director Jean-Luc Godard, rose to fame as the face of the French New Wave – La Nouvelle Vague – during the 1960s. Originally from Denmark, born Hanne Karin Bayer in 1940, Karina lived in foster care for four years as a child, before moving back home with her mother. Though it was to be short-lived: after a row, the 17-year-old Karina hitchhiked to Paris. Jobless, and unable to speak French, she was sitting outside historic café-cum-literary salon Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district when a casting director for an advertising agency was struck by her looks. What followed was a career in modelling – undertaking jobs from Pierre Cardin to Coca Cola – and, during an ELLE shoot the same year, she met Coco Chanel who advised her to change her name if she wanted to be an actress. She followed her advice, and Anna Karina was born. 

Her first encounter with Godard was no less memorable. He was casting his first feature film Breathless and had seen Karina in a Palmolive soap advertisment in which she appears naked in the bath, modesty covered by soap suds. When he offered her a role in the film, she told him she refused to do nude scenes – much to Godard’s confusion, having believed her to be comfortable doing so. “I wasn’t nude,” she told him of the Palmolive advert, according to a reminiscence in Vogue magazine. “That was your imagination.” After her refusal to appear in Breathless, he offered her the lead role in his next film, Le Petit Soldat. One year later, they got married and created a whirlwind of attention which shaped French New Wave forever. 

What? Their much-glamorised marriage resulted in seven feature films during the French New Wave including A Woman Is a Woman, My Life To Live, Pierrot Le Fou and Alphaville. Her collaboration with Godard marks arguably the most influential aesthetic in the history of the movement – Karina’s personal style and look became the living embodiment of La Nouvelle Vague. With her dark hair, cropped fringe and big, kohl-lined eyes, her charm, innocence and natural talent would enchant cinema-goers and directors, providing a vision of youthful insouciance for which New Wave is famed. 

After the release of Le Petit Soldat, her career flourished and she starred in dozens of films during the 60s, working with widely acclaimed directors such as Luchino Visconti and Jacques Rivette, while also undertaking a singing career and writing several novels (she would also direct herself, with 1973 film Vivre Ensemble). It was the Godard-directed Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964) though, which proved a milestone – playing a starry-eyed school girl who meets two mysterious men at school, her character roams through Paris before committing a robbery. 

Bande à part would prove such an inspiration to filmmaker Quentin Tarantino that he named his production company after the film (A Band Apart) and paid homage to its famed dance scene – in which the protagonists break into a spontaneous routine in a Parisian café – in Pulp Fiction.

Why? Karina remains one of cinema’s most memorable faces – and perhaps the definitive leading lady of La Nouvelle Vague. Together with Godard, she has created a look and a way of life on screen which continues to enchant today: just a few months ago, Virginie Viard’s debut ready-to-wear collection for Chanel drew on the New Wave look epitomised by Karina. 

And, though her style remains recognisable – the simple loose jumper, dark pleated skirt and knee socks which would become her signature look – it was the never the clothes which defined her style. Rather it was her demeanour: at once knowing and innocent, playful and charming. And it continued to endure: Karina would act in films into the 2000s. “I am the old story. L’histoire ancienne,” she told the Guardian in 2016.  “But an old story can still be a good story, no?”

Anna Karina died on December 14, 2019 in Paris, aged 79. 

Tout Godard, a Chanel-sponsored retrospective of director Jean-Luc Godard at the Cinémathèque Française is set to run from January 8 to March 1, 2020.