Instagram’s a funny place where some of the most current women around continually nod to the past. When today’s It girls aren’t posting pictures of Kate Moss from the 90s, accessorised with a cigarette and Johnny Depp, then they are spamming your feed with photographs of 60s-era Jane Birkin, clutching a straw basket and wearing a skirt so short it could get her arrested. But arguably the coolest woman to pledge your allegiance to on the ‘gram is Anna Karina, the actress and former wife and muse of the French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. Her 60s French girl style – think sailor dresses, tartan, long socks, and hats – and mesmerising doe-eyed beauty mean she continues to be referenced today by the super-stylish. Now 75, the Danish-French star of 60s classics such as Une Femmes Est Une Femmes (A Woman Is A Woman), Bande à part (The Outsiders) and Alphaville, is in London to celebrate the launch of the Jean-Luc Godard season at the BFI.
Godard, whose work has influenced the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, first approached the 20-year-old Karina after he’d seen her in the bath in a Palmolive commercial and offered her a role in his iconic film À Bout de Soufflé (Breathless). After she turned it down because it involved nudity, Godard pointed out that she had been naked in the Palmolive ad. “Are you mad?” she replied. “I was wearing a bathing suit in those ads—the soapsuds went up to my neck. It was in your mind that I was undressed.” Entranced, he then offered her a main role in Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier) in 1960. Karina took the part and during filming left her then-boyfriend for Godard, marrying him the next year. Despite working together on eight films, their legendary passionate and stormy relationship ended in divorce in 1967.
Such is her impact on the cultural landscape – New Wave poster girl, style icon – she makes for a pretty intimidating figure to meet. But all nerves are put aside as soon as she greets me warmly with a big dazzling smile, takes my arm, and suggests we move out of the BFI screening room where we are supposed to have our chat and go and have some wine in the bar instead. Karina still cuts a glamorous figure. Wearing a wide-brimmed fedora and thick cashmere scarf, time has done nothing to reduce the sharpness of her cheekbones or the sparkle in her eyes. After she orders us a bottle of rosé and some cheese (you can take the girl out of France…), I ask Karina what it was like to have appeared in such celebrated and important films. “It’s funny because a long time ago when Jean-Luc did the films, a lot of people didn’t like them at the time because they were so different. But as time passed, they started to love them,” she says in her heavily-accented, deep, throaty voice. “Now, I get the Eurostar to come here to London and I go through security and they say, ‘You’re Anna Karina!’ 'But how do they know me?,' I think. It’s wonderful to see young people today like the films; I think it’s great.” She bats away any suggestion that she is an important figure in cinema, and is spectacularly modest about her achievements, which include acting awards, writing novels, directing, setting up her own (now defunct) production company, and singing on Serge Gainsbourg-penned hits such as “Sous le Soleil Exactement” and “Roller Girl”. Having last acted in 2008, she is mostly retired now.
Ask her what it was like to be a muse to such an influentially creative man and she merely responds: “Oh I suppose it’s flattering but I don’t take it all that seriously. I just liked doing the films.” I want to know how she has dealt with aging. As such a famous beauty, has she found it difficult to deal with the passage of time?
“Oh noooo,’ she responds, almost looking surprised. “My mother always told me I was ugly. She told me my eyes were too big and my forehead, too. She wanted me to look like Shirley Temple and as a child would try to curl my hair.” So she really never felt beautiful? “No. Because in my family they didn’t say things like that.” Karina had an unsettling childhood that saw her leave her home in Denmark at 17 and hitchhike to Paris with the dream of becoming an actress. She was living on the street when she was discovered by a casting agent in the famous Les Deux Magots café. At the time she was called Hanne Karin Bayer, but on a shoot for ELLE magazine in 1958, she was introduced to one Coco Chanel who told her that she should think about changing her name if she wanted to be an actress. Karina howls with laughter when she recalls it. “She said to me: 'You can’t call yourself that. It’s too long and it doesn’t sound pretty. Call yourself Anna. Anna Karina.' I said, ‘Thank you, madam, that sounds very nice’.”
Although she could be mischievous and playful on screen, always tormenting lovers and dancing, she was also often seen in tears. She would think about other actresses' performances to make her cry on camera. "In Vivre Sa Vie (My Life To Live), I thought about Renée Falconetti crying in The Passion of Joan of Arc, which is what my character is watching at the cinema. Even though it was not actually playing, she was there with me. I thought about it very deeply and suddenly I started to cry." I can’t resist telling Karina about Instagram and even get it out on my phone, bringing up one account, @annakarina_daily. She’s never heard of Instagram before – she doesn’t use the internet, although her current husband does. “It’s very flattering!” she finally says. She stares at it half amused, half bemused, marvelling at her past life being celebrated in this new world unbeknown to her. "Well... isn't that funny?" The Godard season runs at the BFI until 16th of March and a new Blu-ray collection - Jean-Luc Godard: The Essential Collection - is out 1st of February from Studio Canal.
A scene from Bande à part (1964) that inspired the diner jive scene in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction