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Une histoire d’Anna
Karina talks about soap commercials, nude scenes, William Faulkner, and her life as a chanteuse

"I love Paris in the summer, when it sizzles," Cole Porter famously wrote, but Anna Karina doesn’t have anything good to say about this summer’s Parisian heat wave: "Well, the weather is okay now, it’s about 28 [83º Fahrenheit], but it used to be 44 [112º — now that’s sizzling] or something like that, it was a nightmare." Perhaps she’d like to come to Boston. "I have never been to Boston, and I regret it because I know that it’s a very beautiful place and people speak very beautifully." I suggest that the Boston Film Festival might do a Godard retrospective and honor her with its Film Excellence Award. "Oh that would be nice, I would love that. I went to New York, to the Plaza Hotel, for Bande à part." That would have been back in 2001, when Rialto Pictures re-released the film that Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to in Pulp Fiction. This time around, Karina is doing interviews to mark the Rialto re-release of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 sparkler Une femme est une femme/A Woman Is a Woman (it’s at the Brattle this week, September 5 through 11), and she’s as sweet over the phone as her character, Angéla, is in the film.

The story that’s told in Godard film books is that the young director placed an ad looking for an actress "to star in my film and be my friend." Is that how he and Karina actually met? "No that’s really — well, he did do that, with François Truffaut, in a kind of special magazine for film. But I was very young, about 17, and I didn’t read that kind of magazine then, I didn’t even speak French. But Jean-Luc saw me in a kind of advertising film for soap. I did two: one was called ‘Mon savon’ and the other was ‘Palmolive,’ and they played on opposite sides of the Champs-Élysées — at that time they had a lot of advertising before the movies, you see. Of course, I was not allowed to do them, but since I didn’t sign anything [she was not old enough to sign a contract], I didn’t understand, and I didn’t know that you shouldn’t do two soap movies at the same time.

"But Jean-Luc saw me in one of those films, and he asked me to come in for À bout de souffle, for a very small part, and I turned it down because he said to me, ‘You have to take your clothes off.’ I was only 17 or 18, and it was a small part, and I thought it was funny that somebody should ask you to take your clothes off. So I said, ‘No, I don’t want to take my clothes off,’ and following that I left. And then about three, four months later I got a kind of telegram asking me would you like to come and see Jean-Luc Godard, this time it might be for the main part, and that was for Le petit soldat ["The Little Soldier," Godard’s second film].

"I didn’t remember what had happened because I saw him for maybe two minutes the first time. So I went back, and I recognized him right away because he had the dark glasses. He walked around me, looking at me from top to bottom, and he said, ‘Okay, you got the part.’ I said, ‘But I don’t have to go make a test?’ And he said, ‘No no, you got the part. Come and sign the contract tomorrow.’ And I said, ‘But I can’t sign, I’m under age,’ because at that time you had to be 21. He said, "No problem, come with your mother or your father.’ I said, ‘I have no father, and my mother lives in Denmark, in Copenhagen [where Karina was born].’ ‘Ask your mother to take the plane.’ ‘My mother never took a plane in her life, I don’t know if she wants to,’ ‘Well, you have to, your mother has to sign the contract because you cannot sign for yourself.’ So I called my mother, and my mother came, and she signed the contract."

Une femme est une femme looks like a film that was fun to make. "Oh it was. Jean-Luc is very special, you know that. He kind of talks to you about the character and about the costumes and you get into the part. Everybody says that Jean-Luc is — that you go and buy things, but that’s not really true because all my costumes in Une femme est une femme were made for me. We didn’t go and buy them. So we all knew what the film was all about. Even though he would write the dialogue in the morning and give it to us, we would still have time to rehearse and to be a part of his thinking and his way of doing things. Whatever you play, it has to get into your body, your soul, your way of behavior." So they weren’t just improvising? "No, with Jean-Luc you never improvise. It sounds like improvising, but you never do. Only if you have a very very good idea, then he’d take it. But if not, it’s word by word."

Angéla sings a little song as part of her striptease act in Une femme — had Karina done any singing before she made the film? ‘I had sung in small cabarets. I was 12 or 13 at that time, and I was singing American songs like ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘Fish Gotta Swim, Birds Gotta Fly’ ["Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine"], because I was a fan of all the musicals, you know. I didn’t understand at that time the funny ladies who were around; many years afterward I understood that they were men dressed like women. But I thought they were very nice, and I didn’t know they were men. They were looking at me saying, ‘This little girl is so cute, and she sings such beautiful songs,’ and it was very innocent, there was no perversity about it."

Now, of course, she’s embarked on a recording career. Her first CD, Une histoire d’amour, on which she does mostly numbers by contemporary French songwriter Philippe Katerine, came out in 2000. (It’s reviewed in this week’s "Off the Record," on page 21.) And there’s more in the works. "After Une femme," she explains, "I sang in a lot of films. There’s an album coming out in October with all the songs I sang in all those films, and also ‘Blue Moon.’ And there’s another album we’re working on right now, and that will be for next year, also with Philippe Katerine. We went to Japan and all over France and Europe for one and a half years doing concerts with Une histoire d’amour.’ But she didn’t come to America? "Oh I wish. But you know that I did a little part in Jonathan Demme’s film [The Truth About Charlie], and he said, ‘You should go sing in Joe’s Pub,’ in New York, and I went to Joe’s Pub, but I don’t think it’s the kind of place I’d like to sing in, too much noise. We were making concerts in real theaters, beautiful theaters. It’s great fun. On the new album, I wrote a lot of the lyrics, and I think it’s really good.

"Jean-Luc was a fan of musicals, we used to go see them all. We even went to see Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones in London, because it was banned in France, and it was absolutely fantastic. And as a matter of fact, he wanted to do that, not in Une femme est une femme, but in Pierrot le fou, he wanted to do it with Richard Burton and me, and he wanted to do it when William Faulkner was still alive in New York. I was the girl who did the garden work for Faulkner, and it would be a musical, but of course he never did it because Faulkner died, and then Jean-Luc didn’t want to do it anymore. But he was a fan of Faulkner, and Richard Burton, too." In the end, Pierrot was made with Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo.

What about her current film career? "I just did a picture [Moi César, 10 ans 1/2, 1m39] with Richard Berry, a famous actor here in France, it’s not a big part but it was a very good part, and it was a big, big success, I’m happy about that. But I don’t want to do just ‘Hello, goodbye,’ only for very very good directors like Jonathan Demme, who asked me to sing this tango in his film. If not, I really take my choices, because I’m too old to say yes to everything, and also, I’ve done too many good things to go do whatever now."

And what does she think when she looks back on her work with Godard? "I think it was all the best. The very best. I meet young people on the street every day, between 15 and 17 years old, and they tell me, ‘Oh I saw this picture’ — they don’t tell me they saw this old film — ‘and it’s everything I think about life,’ and I think that’s the best gift you can have.

"It’s been a long time, but you know, I don’t feel old. I’m 62, everybody knows that, I’ll be 63 in September. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway. But I have lots of fun, and friends. Life has been good to me."

And she’s been good to us. Paris may swelter in the summer, but Anna Karina still sizzles all year round.

Issue Date: September 5 - September 11, 2003
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