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“Be Beautiful and Shut Up”: Anna Karina on Filmmaking with Jean-Luc Godard

Anna Karina in Bande a Part

Anna Karina is, along with Gena Rowlands, my favorite actress of all time. The seven and a half films that she made with Jean-Luc Godard constitute, arguably, the most influential body of work in the history of cinema. They certainly were more important in my own development as a filmmaker than any of the other countless masterpieces I fell in love with in the course of my cinematic education. Those seven and a half films redefined and redrew the map of what cinema is and could be more radically than anything I had seen before or since. Godard’s relationship with Karina became the hidden subject of those films, and the poetic mastery with which he tracks the ups and downs of that five-year relationship surpasses even what Fellini and Bergman were able to achieve in their lifelong collaborations with Giulietta Masina and Liv Ullman, respectively. The only director/actress relationship that rivals Godard and Karina’s was John Cassavetes’ relationship with Gena Rowlands in the handful of films they made together.

When I found out that Anna Karina was going to be touring the United States to promote Rialto’s release of a newly restored version of Bande a part, I immediately asked if I could interview her. Because of the high demand, I only had thirty minutes for the interview, so the conversation ended rather abruptly when our time ran out. There were so many more questions I wish I could have asked.

Zahedi: Are you acting these days?

Karina: Well, you, know, now I’m an old lady so I don’t get offered a lot of roles, but I only do what I want to do anyway. I’ve always been like that. I’m not going for money or anything like that. I do it if it’s good, even for a small part. But if I don’t like it, I’m just going to say, “Hello, goodbye,” just like that.

Zahedi: And is there anything you really want to do while you’re still alive, before you die?

Karina: Before I die? We’ll see… (laughing) You’re funny! Well, I don’t know. I’m happy to be meeting lots of people and, you know, people are laughing. I make them laugh. It’s great. I have a great time. And where I live, I know everybody in the neighborhood. I can’t walk three steps without someone saying, “Anna, how are you?” You know, it’s like a village.

Zahedi: So you’re enjoying life?

Karina: You know, I always did. Sometimes there’s ups and downs. But I survived.

Zahedi: So what’s your main thing now that you’re interested in doing?

Karina: I wrote three books — two for kids. I wrote The Ugly Duckling again. You know, Hans Christian Anderson. I rewrote it, a modern version. And then I rewrote The Little Mermaid, and it’s becoming a musical next year in Paris.

Zahedi: Based on your version?

Karina: Yes, on my version.

Zahedi: Wow. So you’re mostly writing these days?

Karina: I’m writing, I’m singing, I’m doing, you know…

Zahedi: I’ve been trying to find the films you directed. I can’t find them anywhere.

Karina: I don’t know. That’s life. Maybe you have to die before, you know?

Zahedi: (laughing) Yes, you probably do.

Karina: [The first was] called “Living Together.” Vivre Ensemble. I produced it myself.

Zahedi: I hope I find it one day.

Karina: Me too.

Zahedi: Godard was the biggest influence on me. And the films that you guys made together are his best films. And so important. I’ve always wanted to make a film about your relationship with Godard. I know someone is making a film right now about Godard’s relationship with Anne Wiazemsky, right?

Karina: Oh, I didn’t know about that.

Zahedi: Yeah, the guy that made the The Artist?

Karina: Yeah?

Zahedi: He’s making a film, and I think Louis Garrel is playing Godard.

Karina: Louis Garrel is playing Godard? He’s a friend of mine! I didn’t know that!

Zahedi: It was just announced two days ago.

Karina: Two days ago? Because we’ve been here close to ten days now. Wow.

Zahedi: So there was a book written by Anne Wiazemsky.

Karina: I read it, yeah.

Zahedi: The film is based on that book. But, I mean, your relationship with Godard is the more important relationship for film history.

Karina: That’s… I’m amazed. I’m really astonished. They’re doing a film about that book?

Zahedi: Yeah.

Karina: Yeah, it’s called —

Zahedi:Un An Après.

Karina: Oui.

Zahedi: Would you be open to someone making a movie about your relationship with Godard?

Karina: Oh, no. I wouldn’t like that.

Zahedi: Why?

Karina: Because it’s, you know, a private thing.

Zahedi: You’re not going to write a memoir or anything about your relationship?

Karina: Well, that’s something else. You’re talking about a movie, right?

Zahedi: Yeah. If you write a memoir, somebody will make a movie eventually.

Karina: Well, I’ll be dead maybe so it’s okay. I think that’s funny because the book is very, I don’t know, it’s… bizarre?

Zahedi: Uh-huh. Did you know her?

Karina: Yes, she’s a writer now. She’s not an actress anymore. Anne Wiazemsky was married to Jean-Luc too, after me.

Zahedi: Was he married to anyone besides you and her?

Karina: No. He married me and then straight after that he married Anne.

Zahedi: After you guys had broken up?

Karina: Everybody was called Anne. It’s very funny.

Zahedi: And Anne-Marie Miéville, right?

Karina: Yeah, she’s called Anne too. And the first one he knew was called Anne Collette.

Zahedi: Oh? He had a relationship with someone before he met you named Anne also?

Karina: Yeah.

Zahedi: Oh, interesting. Do you guys talk still?

Karina: He doesn’t talk to anybody.

Zahedi: Is that because he’s bitter or because he’s…

Karina: No, he doesn’t want to, I guess. I don’t know. What do I know? I’m not inside his head.

Zahedi: When’s the last time you saw him?

Karina: A long, long time ago. But at one time he said, “Send Anna Karina to talk about me because she knows best.”

Zahedi: That’s true, right?

Karina: Well, I’ve nothing bad to say about him in a way.

Zahedi: What was it about him that made you fall in love with him?

Karina: You know, I was around eighteen or something like that.

Zahedi: 1959?

Karina: Yeah, right.

Zahedi: Right around Breathless.

Karina: Yep. He asked me to do a little part but I didn’t want to do it because I had to take my clothes off.

Zahedi: He was ten years older than you?

Karina: Ten years exactly.

Zahedi: He was 28 and you were 18, right?

Karina: Yes, but that was a big age difference at that time.

Zahedi: It’s a big difference now.

Karina: Not so much anymore. Things have changed. But at that 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.”

Zahedi: But you guys both fell in love during the making of Le Petit Soldat, right? What was it about Godard that made you fall in love with him?

Karina: He was very fascinating, and I was attracted to him. I never understood. It was like something you can’t help. I was going like- what do you call it?

Zahedi: Magnetism?

Karina: Like not thinking about anything else. When he wrote this little love letter saying, “I love you, meet me at the Café de la Paix at midnight” — it was like I couldn’t do anything else. I can’t explain why.

Zahedi: And you had a boyfriend at the time, right?

Karina: Yeah, he was very unhappy.

Zahedi: So you were already in love with Godard when he wrote the letter?

Karina: Yeah, because we’d been shooting for about three months. That’s one of his longest films because most the times we’d shoot a film in three weeks.

Zahedi: Right, that’s a long time for him.

Karina: Right, very long. And we’d stop the film, and we’d look at each other all the time. And it’s like very slowly becoming closer and closer to each other. It’s very hard to explain. Sometimes it’s just like that (slaps hands together) you know? But this 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. Maybe I don’t know the words for it. I don’t know. But of course, I went there, after work, to Le Café de la Paix at midnight. He was sitting there reading a paper, and I was standing in front of him waiting. 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.”

Zahedi: And then where did you go?

Karina: We went to his hotel. The next morning, I didn’t wake up, and he left before me and came back with a beautiful white dress. I wore it in Le Petit Soldat. Just for me. Like a wedding dress, you know.

Zahedi: So you guys spent the night together and in the morning when you woke up there was a dress that he had bought that morning?

Karina: Yeah. If you see the film again, you will remember the white dress with the flowers.

Zahedi: And he bought it the morning after you guys spent the night together?

Karina: Well, I woke up, and he was not there.

Zahedi: Maybe he bought it before?

Le Petite Soldat
<i>Le Petite Soldat<i>

Karina: No, I think he went to buy it. It was not in the room the night before.

Zahedi: That movie is amazing because you can see his love for you in every shot,in the way he films you. It’s like a film about someone falling in love and you can see it happening. It’s an amazing document.

Karina: We were falling in love. But, you know, I never saw the rushes. At that time I wasn’t aware of what you are talking about. But maybe in the film, now, yeah.

Zahedi: I mean, it’s so visible.

Karina: Of course, I’ve got the memories.

Zahedi: Okay, so after La Petit Soldat, you guys become a couple, right? You broke up with your boyfriend?

Karina: Yeah, and I didn’t have friends no more.

Zahedi: No friends?

Karina: No, no friends. Because I just went with Jean-Luc Godard, so I had no friends.

Zahedi: So you were kind of isolated?

Karina: Yeah. When we came back to Paris in his car, he said, “Where should I drop you off?” And I said, “You can’t drop me off because I have nothing left. I only have you.”

Zahedi: Because you had to give up your whole previous life?

Karina: Yeah, right. And then he said okay.

Zahedi: So then you moved in with him?

Karina: Yeah, into a hotel called Italia on the Rue Chateaubriand off the Champs-Elysées.

Zahedi: And then?

Karina: So we stayed there and once in a while he’d come and say, “Do you want to go to the cutting room?” You know, he was cutting the film. So I’d say yes. And then one day, he came and said, “You have to find us an apartment.” So I found us an apartment behind La Madeleine. We lived there for a while and then Le Petit Soldat got banned, as you know, and it was like if I had done nothing. But then I got another offer from Michel Deville.

Zahedi: Oh, yeah, Michel Deville, yeah he’s great, but I have a question for you because we have very little time. (Looks at his watch). We have almost no time left.

Karina: You take your time.

Zahedi: I’ve been married three times, and when I think about why we broke up, I can say we mostly broke up for this reason or that reason. You’ve been married a few times also, right?

Karina: Yeah.

Zahedi: Wen you think about your break up with Godard, what would you say is the main reason?

Karina: Oh, I just wanted to get somebody, you know, just a friend. I thought my life was gone forever, my love life. Right. So I married a kind of friend.

Zahedi: Are you talking about Godard now or someone else?

Karina: No, after Jean Luc. I was underage when I married Jean Luc, you know.

Zahedi: So you were twenty when you made A Woman is a Woman?

Karina: Yeah.

Anna Karina and Caveh Zahedi (Photo: Mandy Zahedi)
Anna Karina and Caveh Zahedi Photo Amanda Field

Zahedi: That’s a beautiful film. But my question is: why did you guys break up? It was obviously a very troubled, difficult relationship. What would you say is the main reason?

Karina: Too, too heavy.

Zahedi: He was too heavy or….

Karina: He was not too heavy (laughs). It was too heavy, all the situations. He was too… too one-way minded.

Zahedi: Things had to be a certain way? He was rigid about things? Possessive?

Karina: No, he was sometimes going away and not coming back.

Zahedi: And that would make you crazy? I mean, that would make me crazy.

Karina: Yeah, I mean there was no phone. Not like now.

Zahedi: (laughs) Right, like, “Where are you?”

Karina: It was really a problem, and I was all alone then, you know, and it was really crazy. He would go and say, “I’ll buy some cigarettes” and come back three weeks later.

Zahedi: And where would he go?

Karina: He’s complicated. Oh, he went to see Faulkner in the States.

Zahedi: William Faulkner?

Karina: Yes, or he went to see Ingmar Bergman in Sweden. He would go to Italy to see Roberto Rossellini. You know, go here and there.

Zahedi: So he met Faulkner?

Karina: And I would know about it how? Because he came back with some presents (laughs) and I would see if the packaging was in Italian or Swedish or whatever.

Zahedi: So how long would you say you guys were happy together?

Karina: We were very happy while we were shooting, always.

Zahedi: And then when you stopped shooting, it would get bad again?

Karina: Yeah, you know, then he would leave. He would say, “I want to take you to the South of France.” I would say, “Great.” And we’d drive down to the South of France to relax a little bit. And we would drive 200 kilometers, and then he would say, “Oh I really don’t want to go to South of France.”

Zahedi: He would change his mind?

Karina: I said, “What do you mean? I mean, you asked me to go down there for fun.” And I love him. And he said, “I have to go back to talk to Francois Truffaut.”

Zahedi: Were you friends with Truffaut?

Karina: Yeah, very.

Zahedi: Did you like him?

Karina: Yeah, very much.

Zahedi: He seemed like one of the nicer ones.

Karina: Yeah. And then said, “And Jacques Rivette. I’ve got to talk to them because I’ve got something to tell them. I’ve got to work.” So I said, “Okay let’s go back.” So we turned around and headed back to Paris. And then he said, “You look upset…” I said, “No, I’m just a little bit disappointed, you know, because you asked me to go to the South of France. I didn’t ask you for anything — you’re the one who asked me to go to the South of France.” So he said, “Well, if that’s how you feel about it, then we’ll just go to the South of France.” So we turned around again and and it went on forever, for 24 hours, because there was no freeway at that time, you know, no highways, no freeways. And then suddenly, he said, “We’re going back again to Paris.” And then he said to me, “You look really angry now.” I said, “Yeah.” And so I said, “Stop the car,” and I got out of the car. I got hysterical after being 24 hours on the road, you know? We were going backwards and forwards and then backwards again to the South of France. I go, “I don’t give a shit any more about going to the South of France.” And start to hit the car.

Zahedi: With your bag?

Karina: No, with my foot.

Zahedi: Oh, kicking it?

Karina: Yeah, kicking it, the car and all that. He said, “You’re hysterical.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re driving me fucking crazy.” And of course we didn’t go to La Cote d’Azur. And of course he just went to see his friends the next morning.

Zahedi: Well, he sounds like a difficult person to be married to.

Karina: Yeah. He’s… let’s say he’s not meant to live with somebody else.

Zahedi: Right.

Karina: Right.

Zahedi: So during the making of Le Petit Soldat, everything is good. You guys are falling in love. With Une Femme Est Une Femme, you guys are getting along during the shoots, but then afterwards there’s stuff, a fight. You got pregnant, and you had a miscarriage, right?

Karina: Yeah. I got pregnant while we were doing the film.

Zahedi: During Une Femme Est Une Femme?

Karina: Yeah.

Zahedi: Because it’s all about wanting a child.

Karina: And I guess I should never have gone to Argentina… because before that I did Tonight or Never with Michel Deville. And then we went to the Mar De Plata film festival. I should have never made that big voyage because it was a very big trip.

Zahedi: And you were pregnant at the time?

Karina: Yeah. It didn’t show because I was very skinny. And I guess I shouldn’t have done that because when I came back I got sick.

Zahedi: You lost the child?

Karina: Yeah, after many months. I had to lay in bed. At that time they didn’t know anything.

Zahedi: How many months pregnant?

Karina: About six-and-a-half months. I was really badly ill. I was sick, and then I became crazy because I got operations and I wanted to make suicide and all that. Then we did Bande a part.

Zahedi: Right after that?

Karina: Not right after. I did other films in between.

Zahedi: The next Godard film?

Karina: Yeah, I was staying sick all the time.

Zahedi: Was the pregnancy planned? You wanted to have a child?

Karina: Yeah! Sure!

Zahedi: You were trying to have a child?

Karina: No, we were not trying to have a child, it just came like that.

Zahedi: And then, that was sort of the beginning of the end?

Karina: Well, because he was there, you know, and then afterwards he would come to the hospital and then he would go away again. It was very complicated. Yeah, you know at that time we didn’t have a lot to say, the women.

Zahedi: You can see that in the movies too.

Karina: We didn’t have any rights. So, you know, with needing money to live and all that, it was very difficult, you know, because you were expected to just sit down and listen and be beautiful because, if not, there’s nothing going on.

Zahedi: Yeah, so it was kind of deadly.

Karina: “Sois belle et tais-toi.” That’s the expression. “Be beautiful and shut up.”

Zahedi: That’s also the title of a film, right?

Karina: Yes! There is a movie called that!

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