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Why Anna Karina was the ultimate muse of the French New Wave

The French New Wave, led by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, swept the world of cinema like nothing else before it. Characterised by an energetic and improvisational style, the movement inspired the aesthetic sensibilities of cinema in many others like the New Hollywood era and the Hong Kong New Wave. While the French auteurs often get credit for the pioneering achievements of the movement, there is one woman who exists at the centre of it all – Anna Karina.

Born in 1940 in Denmark, Karina worked as a model/cabaret singer from a very early age before leaving for Paris after fighting with her mother. Unable to speak French properly, it is well-known that Karina was spotted by an agent and trained to become a performer. Born as Hanne Karin Bayer, she changed her name and fashioned it after the title of the famous novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

When she was featured in an advertisement for Palmolive, Godard was mesmerised by her beauty and tried to offer her a nude part in his directorial debut, Breathless. His interest was piqued after Karina outrightly rejected him, leading Godard to the formation of an immortalised creative collaboration with the aspiring actress, which started with the early gem Le Petit Soldat.

Anna Karina would soon become the face of the French New Wave, despite the co-existence of other icons like Brigitte Bardot with whom Godard worked on Contempt. Karina did not possess the “pillowy charms” (as described by Mark Kermode) of Bardot, but she didn’t need any of it. Although many fans fixate on the mesmerising superficiality of her image that is projected on the cinematic medium, Anna Karina’s beauty belonged to the symbolic realm rather than the physical.

In an interview, Karina explained: “I don’t look the same way in A Woman is a Woman as in My Life to Live or in Pierrot Le Fou. I am still very different every time. In Pierrot Le Fou, it’s a very different part. I don’t have the same kind of skin, haircut. All the actors, most of the time, would change their haircut, change their look. That was very interesting. I really liked that. But of course, it’s better to be the same all the time because then people remember you better, I guess. I really am very, very proud.”

Just like the irresistible and anarchic energy of the French New Wave, Anna Karina was poetry in motion. Whether it be the restless oscillations of Bande à part or the ominous caution of Alphaville, she blended into the medium itself and moved in synchronous harmony with the separate laws of the celluloid world. Godard’s intense love affair with Karina might have gone up in flames, but his cinematic chronicles of the actress are still alive.

Many feminist critics have rightly pointed out that Godard’s treatment of Karina in his films was a continuous reinforcement of the concept of a muse which is inherently patriarchal. Outside cinema, Karina had to experience the same paradoxical neglect: “It really was a great love story, but very tiring in a way for a young girl because he would go away a lot. He would say he was going to buy some cigarettes and he would come back three weeks later.”

In order to break out of the curse of being a symbol, Karina tried to become an auteur herself in an attempt to exert some agency over the ownership of her visual poetry. She made two films – Vivre ensemble and Victoria – which can be seen as her response to her cinematic objectification but they remain largely unseen by audiences who prefer Anna Karina, the symbol. As for the novels she wrote during her lifetime, they are mostly the subject of purely academic inquiries.

Just before the pandemic changed the world forever, Karina passed away in December of 2019 due to complications caused by cancer. Many admirers of the French New Wave mourned the loss of the icon who had a seminal influence on the trope of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” instead of attempting to see past the illusory persona constructed by male filmmakers. Anna Karina’s unique energy and poetic defiance merit more than the simple label of a muse. In more ways than one, she was the French New Wave.

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