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    Jean-Luc Godard: the artist and his muse


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    Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina at the Cannes film festival in 1962 Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex/Shutterstock

    Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina at the Cannes film festival in 1962 Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex/Shutterstock

    Jean-Luc Godard had a problem with endings. His early films often finish with a throwaway closure, a death, not quite real, distantly presented. His films are all middle, yet a sense of ending imbues them. For Godard, even love itself is something that is always winding down and his lover, his wife, the muse of the best of his early movies, Anna Karina, embodies this problem. Watching Bande à Part (1964) and Pierrot le Fou (1965), I really didn’t want these films ever to finish; the deep pleasure of being in the company of Karina, and Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey and Jean-Paul Belmondo, is so beguiling that you want the fun to last a little longer. These are films in which people simply kill time, delightfully. There’s an energy there, a yearning restlessness of youth; people dance, or are running, even, as in Breathless (1960), as the life ebbs from them. The films play to a musical sense of rhythm, carried by a beat, a melody connecting the images. Here improvisation is liberty; plot is control. Karina acts as the living symbol of someone caught between her own spontaneity and others’ constraint. She’s living her life, but nonetheless stands as the victim of the directorial process, bartered by pimps, controlled, bullied and photographed.

    Karina ran away from home at the age of 17, hitchhiking from Denmark to France. In Paris, she lived on the streets until she was spotted in the cafe Les Deux Magots by a woman from an ad agency, and was launched on a career as a model. Godard first caught sight of her advertising soap, apparently naked in a bath. When he cast her in a leading role in Le Petit Soldat (released in 1963, but made in 1960), as a “minor” she still required her estranged mother’s signature on the contract. During the making of the film Karina and Godard began an affair, and in 1961 a passionate, desperate marriage that ended in 1965. Between 1960 and 1966, prompted by affection and despair, Godard made seven films with Karina, as well as Le Mépris (1963) in which Brigitte Bardot effectively impersonates her. Together they form one of the glories of 20th-century cinema, a testament to love and art.

    Each film is distinct in tone and form, moving from the romantic comedy of Une Femme Est une Femme (1961) to the dystopian Alphaville (1965), from the skewed documentary impulse in Vivre sa vie (1962) to the melancholy comedy of Bande à part. Karina does not inhabit a continuing cinematic image in the way that Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe do in their films. Belmondo is more or less constantly Belmondo, but Karina can be anything or anyone, and yet remains herself, a person and not a persona.

    Her first movie with Godard, Le Petit Soldat, is a tale of the Algerian war, an echo of Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes set in a Geneva filled with spies and double agents. It’s a film of surveillance and interrogation. In a remarkable scene, the rightwing secret agent, the hero of the film, photographs a withdrawn Karina, directing her, trying to provoke her into opening up before him. Yet for all we are invited to stare at her, she remains elusive, reserved. Later, in an extended sequence, Algerian terrorists torture the hero to extract information from him and we are compelled to share his sufferings. It’s a distressing illustration of the film’s main theme: what goes on in another person’s head? This query would become Godard’s preoccupation with regard to Karina, the elusive beloved, the shifting centre of each movie. Photographing Karina, intruding on her privacy, the spy gives us Godard’s famous line: “Photography shows the truth. Cinema shows the truth at a rate of 24 frames per second.” But where, these films want to know, is the truth present in another’s face?

    In Une Femme Est une Femme Karina plays a stripper, and could have become objectified, merely looked at; in practice, she’s too much herself for that. When she strips, half the punters are too preoccupied to bother looking at her. In Vivre Sa Vie, Godard plays again with our desire to watch his star, to trace the sorrows of her changing face. The film begins with Karina splitting up with her partner, the whole scene shot from behind. “What’s that look for?” she says, but with their backs to us it’s a look we can’t ourselves see. Her husband, a teacher, quotes a child’s essay to her: “A bird is an animal with an interior and an exterior; remove the exterior you see the interior; remove the interior, you see the soul.” From then on, Godard constructs a portrait of Karina, putting a life, his love for her, on screen, trying to find that soul by way of the exterior. The character she plays, Nana, is after all an anagram of Anna.

    The film toys with a long-standing slur that connects the actor to the prostitute. Playing a frustrated actress, Karina allows us to entertain the thought that Rimbaud’s ungrammatical paradox (during the film she quotes it), “I is an other”, may be, for the actor, a literal truth. She is caught between a set of contradictions: that she is a uniquely valuable person, and still she may be just a pretty face, no more than the sum of the reactions she provokes. Her lover wants to go to the Louvre; paintings bore Nana, but he attempts to persuade her, saying “art and beauty are life”. Yet he reads her a story by Poe in which a man’s painting of his beloved robs her of life, art supplanting the real woman it attempts to memorialise. At the movie’s end, in another of Godard’s apparently offhand conclusions, she’s trapped between men, shot by both sides. It’s both melodrama and a political point, the woman’s symbolic fate.

    In one of the greatest moments in this great film, Nana dances. It’s a solitary surrender to movement in a film that laments and records her isolation. There’s a wonderful, uninhibited silliness to it; we enjoy, from outside, that freshness in Karina, the camera prowling the room with her, following the impulse of the loping bass guitar. And then, for a moment, we’re inside her point of view, playing the room until the pimps catch sight of her, and we’re onlookers once again.

    In an astonishing transformation, Karina followed the alienated poise of Nana with the gauche, gamine Odile in Bande à Part. Here she frowns, ineptly flirts, large-eyed and troubled. There’s a dance sequence too, the Madison performed in the cafe by Odile and her two boyfriends. This time Karina dances with others, but still remains alone; the three of them mirror each other, and remain separate, Godard’s voiceover reminding us of their concealed, private thoughts. Remembered as a movie about companionship, it exposes the separation and disjunction, the coercion and rivalry that shadow the trio’s inconsequential idyll of togetherness. For most of the film they remain on formal “vous” terms. As everywhere in these early films, Godard invests the movie with an irony that nonetheless evokes the poetry that it resists. While it is drenched with melancholy, it nonetheless exudes a fragile joy; you finish it feeling that bit more reconciled to life.

    Bande à Part also lays bare one essential fact of cinema; in the absence of plot, the time must pass somehow, and so the trio help it pass, dancing, holding a minute’s silence, breaking the speed record for getting through the Louvre, playing cops and robbers. Pierrot le Fou is even more invested in this thought: it’s a movie that struggles with (and overcomes) the fact that films and life are boring. It flirts with the duty to entertain, its characters and the audience both wanting distraction, all the more necessary in view of the absence of connected plot. Saturated with outlaw-chic, Belmondo and Karina move between a Jules Verne idyll and a hardboiled thriller, taking up or dropping the frame provided by genre. It’s a very funny and very desperate film; it closes with murder and suicide, because it has to close somehow.

    At the end of Godard’s time with Karina comes Made in USA (1966), firmly at the start of a new phase in his career. Experimental, Maoist, committed, these later 60s films are no doubt intellectually stimulating, but, to this viewer at least, they’re a misery to watch. The joy has departed; Karina and Godard were already divorced, and it shows. In a sense, Alphaville provides a more fitting coda to the films they made together. It’s a strange precursor of Blade Runner, a noiresque science-fiction film, similarly preoccupied with a flight from feeling. Here perhaps more than anywhere else, Godard frames Karina as an actor with the power to move us. Inhabiting a society where feeling is alien and coldness is all people learn, she nonetheless moves towards gentleness. The film shows her discovery onscreen of the human qualities of compassion, of love; in the coldness of film, she makes a space for human warmth. It’s a small miracle, and a miracle repeated in nearly all her movies with Godard, a frail embrace of tenderness that we never want to end.


    The Guardian 

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