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Lights, Karina, Action: A Tribute to Anna Karina

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Anna Karina in 1968 (Joost Evers, Anefo)

In Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 film Pierrot le Fou, Jean-Paul Belmondo asks his partner in crime Anna Karina: "Why do you look so sad?". Her response could be a fitting mantra for her cinematic oeuvre: "Because you speak to me with words and I look at you with feelings."

On 14 December 2019, Karina passed away of cancer, but the subdued gaze of her performances lives on.

Born in Denmark in 1940, Anna Karina rose to fame as Godard's collaborator and muse throughout his legendary 60s cinematic run that experimented with traditional film. Godard's films are all about youth and revolt, politically and cinematically, and no other actor epitomised the period as powerfully as Karina did. In fact, her otherwise impressive performances with great directors such as Rivette and Fassbinder seem to have been forgotten, unlike her romanticised association with Godard.

Karina's icon was an icon of hope

And yet it isn't an exaggeration to say Godard's films wouldn't have had the same impact without Karina's presence. Across pieces like Bande à Part, A Woman is a Woman and Alphaville, she centred as the heartbeat of the French New Wave through charismatic winks, wry half-smiles and shed tears, encapsulating the hurt that was at the centre of much of Godard's work, often disguised by the cynical wit that he dressed his movies up in.

No matter how despairing or indulgent Godard's subject matter got, Karina's icon was an icon of hope. In Vivre Sa Vie, she plays a penniless young prostitute who ends up being killed in a trafficking exchange gone wrong. But Karina's sex worker is beautifully multidimensional: bright-eyed, frustrated, romantic.

Karina's face will exemplify her cinema's era as James Dean, Setsuko Hara and Marilyn Monroe did theirs. But her work should stand as its own, untangled by reductive notions of the artist's muse and Godard's complicated legacy.

Louis Norton

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