Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders Honored at Film Forum
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 5/9/16)
By Danny Peary
I was thrilled to meet the great French actress, Anna Karina, last week at the Payne Whitney House, on Fifth Avenue and 79thStreet in New York City, currently the home of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. Her appearance was timed to NYC tributes at BAM, MOMI, and the Film Forum, where a glorious restoration of Band of Outsiders kicked off a series (lasting until May 12) of seven must-see films from the sixties in which the French “New Wave” icon starred for her then-husband, Jean-Luc Godard.
Circa 1970, I met Godard when he visited the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I was an undergrad. Five or six of us know-it-all Godard idolaters sat with him around a small table in the Student Union and every one of us was too intimidated by the most audacious, intellectual, and political of the New Wave directors, to say one word. For a full hour. And Karina said to me, “I’m sure he didn’t talk either.” Correct. Fortunately, Karina was delighted to talk about Godard and her movies with him. She even surprised me by saying that there was no improvisation when making her movies with Godard. “Even Band of Outsiders?” I asked incredulously. “So much seems spontaneous.” “No!” she insisted. “We couldn’t change anything because of the cinematographer, Raoul Coutard. Our dance in the café–we rehearsed for two weeks.” Even that famous, seemingly impromptu dance featuring the three young stars? When I got home, I quickly checked the entry I had written on the film back in 1986 in Guide for the Film Fanatic, hoping I hadn’t gotten it wrong. I wrote:
“Quirky Jean-Luc Godard film is sort of a mix of Breathless (where Jean-Paul Belmondo performs crimes in the nonchalant manner he saw in gangsters in old “B” movies) and Les Enfants Terribles(where the two males and one female commit pretty crimes for fun). Pals Sami Frey and Claude Brassuer play-act crime movies (they also burst into song and imitate movie production numbers), much as little kids imitate heroes from war or western movies. Their mutual girlfriend, Anna Karina, wants to fit in, so she offers a real crime to them: they can steal her aunt’s money. So the three bumbling (they have to go back a second time) amateurs go to aunt’s house to commit the crime. Frey and Brasseur can’t distinguish between fiction and real life. When they put on the movie criminal guises, they think of themselves romantically, as do Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen in Badlands when they commit equally unromantic crimes; but, as is the case with Spacek and Sheen, their guns shoot real bullets and people get hurt. Like many Godard actors, Frey, Brasseur, and Karina improvise their lines during the heist, but what’s really interesting is that they must play their parts as if their characters are also improvising their lines in order to sound like movie gangsters. The characters themselves switch back and forth between their movie-gangster personae and their real selves–the men (Godard’s obviously thinking of Cagney and Bogart) will impulsively slap around Karina when she protests they are mistreating her aunt, yet without missing a beat Frey will become affectionate and ask if she loves him. The overlapping of reel life and ‘real life’ (as depicted in Godard’s movie) is disorienting because we have a hard time figuring out the logic of the characters’ actions, but it’s also exciting original. The amusing ending is bizarre by other films’ standards, but here it’s perfect. Cinematography by Raoul Coutard intentionally swings from intimacy to detachment. Music by Michel Legrand fits the characters’ romantic notion of themselves–he’s nice enough to give their worst efforts music befitting the professional criminals of the movies. Based onFool’s Gold by American novelist Dolores Hitchens. Also with: Louisa Colpeyn, Danièle Girard, Godard (narrator).” So regarding whether Godard had has actors improvise or not, I did get it wrong thirty years ago–at least according to Karina.
I didn’t write specifically about Anna Karina in my entry on Band of Outsiders. but I praised her work with Godard five years later in Cult Movie Stars: “Lovely Danish brunette, a former model, married to French director Jean-Luc Godard in the sixties and the star of some of his most fascinating, influential, and accessible films. Godard often framed her and photographed her as if she were a model. One can tell by the movements of her body, eyes, head, and hair that she understood how the camera can bring out a subject’s beauty and at the same time veil her mystery. One recalls Karina’s characters being cheery when doing a ‘mating dance’ with an attractive young male in Vivra Sa Vie, my favorite Karina film, and an impromptu song and dance with her two male comrades in Bande à Part. But for the most part her enigmatic women are detached, remote, and sad, unable to make romantic connections, illustrating themes in Godard’s films. They are smart women, but either have no idea how to give and receive true love or are just reluctant to try it. In Vivra Sa Vie and the futuristic Alphaville, she plays prostitutes whose mechanical sexual activity pushes them further and further away from true feelings. Men try to reach their hearts: Jean-Paul Belmondo gives up in Pierrot le Fou, but in Alphaville, tough guy Eddie Constantine (ironically) teaches her sensual female about ‘love.’ In Godard’s scheme of things, Karina’s characters were so anesthetized that it’s hard to judge her talent, but in Bande à Part she managed to improvise while portraying a play-acting woman who is improvising herself–no easy chore. Karina was a sexy, mysterious presence in Alphaville and, as a trenchcoat-wearing woman looking for her lover’s murderer, in the perplexing Made in the U.S.A And she was a captivating presence in Vivra Sa Vie, in which her ill-fated prostitute is shot down in the street, and in Pierrot le Fou, running off with Belmondo and being as untrustworthy to his character as Jean Seberg was in Godard’s Breathless [which had a part Karina rejected because it required nudity]. In fact, this film hints at what would have happened to Belmondo and Seberg if they had stayed together.” Yes, I wrote about Karina’s improvisational skills again, but at least my admiration for her as an all-around movie star comes through clearly. I was glad to be able to tell her in person how significant both she and the movies she made with Godard were in my formative years as a true-blue cinephile. She blew me a kiss as I waved goodbye.