Actress and star of the French New Wave

Born: September 22, 1940;

Died: December 14, 2019

ANNA Karina, who has died aged 79, will forever embody the free-spirited and rebellious joie de vivre of the French nouvelle vague. As an actress, the camera adored her, with her intelligence and playful demeanour running alongside a look that embodied European chic.

Her early films with Jean Luc Godard especially saw her at the vanguard of new cinema. It would be wrong, however, to relegate her as a mere muse. Karina has gone on record acknowledging the Pygmalion-like relationship she had with Godard, a mercurial spirit ten years older than her who she would go on to marry. Despite her youth, however, she wouldn’t put up with any of his nonsense.

Godard first spotted Karina in a Palmolive soap commercial, and asked her to do a nude scene in Breathless. When Karina declined, he pointed to her appearance in the ad, when she was immersed in a bath-tub, covered in soap bubbles. She had to point out to him that she has actually wearing a bathing suit, but as the bubbles were up to her neck, it only gave the illusion of nudity, which he had bought into.

Such was the pair’s differing relationship to real life and fiction from the start. Onscreen, Karina seemed to go beyond the artifice of acting to radiate an energy more natural and instinctive. She would go on to define her own creativity, not just as an actress, but as a singer, director, producer and the author of four novels.

Born Hanne Karin Blarke Bayer in Solbjerg, a suburban town on the east coast of Denmark, Karina was renamed by Coco Chanel after she met her while on a modelling shoot in Paris. She had hitch-hiked to France aged 17 following a row with her mother, who ran a dress shop. After her father left her a year after she was born, Karina lived with her maternal grandparents for three years, then in foster care for four years before eventually living with her mother once more.

As a child she tried to run away from home numerous times, and after dropping out of school at 14 sang in cabaret and worked as a model. She appeared in a short film screened at Cannes, perhaps sowing the seeds for her escape to Paris three years later. Sleeping rough, Karina was spotted by the casting director of an ad agency while sitting at fashionable Left Bank café, Les Deux Magots, a well-known haunt of French intellectuals. It was while on a photo-shoot that Chanel turned up. Karina was unaware of who Chanel was, but took her advice. Within a couple of weeks Karina was on the cover of Elle magazine.

Karina appeared in seven of Godard’s films, as a photographer in the Algerian War set Le Petit Soldat, filmed in 1961 but held up by censorship until 1963, through to playing a left wing writer in Made in U.S.A. (1966). Many of the scenes in Godard’s films Karina appeared in became iconic. There was the café bar dance sequence in Bande a Part (1964), the musical striptease in Une Femme est Une Femme (1961), for which she won the Silver Bear Award for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival. There was the close-up of her character crying as she watches The Passion of Joan of Arc in Vivre Sa Vie (1962). She also played a woman on the run in Pierrot le Fou (1965), and joined Eddie Constantine in the hard-boiled science-fiction noir of Alphaville (1965).

Karina and Godard married in 1961 after falling in love during the filming of Le Petit Soldat. The wedding guest list was a who’s who of French cinema, and their wedding photographs made the cover of Paris-Match beneath the headline, ‘The New Wave Bride’. Karina and Godard were together for four tempestuous years, until the film-maker’s errant ways eventually proved too unreliable to put up with anymore.

Karina went on to work with other auteurs, including Roger Vadim (La Ronde), Agnes Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7), Luchino Visconti (The Stranger), and Tony Richardson (Laughter in the Dark).

In 1967, she scored a couple of pop hits with Sous le Soleil Exactement and Roller Girl, both written for her by Serge Gainsbourg for the musical film, Anna. In 1972, Karina set up her own production company to direct her first self-written film, Vivre ensemble, in which she also starred. The film was screened at Cannes. She didn’t direct again until 2008, when she wrote and starred in Victoria. It would be her last film.

Inbetween, in her personal life, she remarried thrice, to actors Pierre Fabre (1968-1974) and Daniel Duval (1978-1981), then in 1982 to film director Denis Berry, who cast her in Last Song (1987) and Chloe (1996). Latterly, Karina made a rare American appearance, in Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie (2002).

In 2016, she visited London to take part in the British Film Institute’s retrospective of films by Godard, and a year later was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. In interviews she played down her contribution to a body of work that defined an age that was both more carefree and more serious.

“Things have changed,” she told Filmmaker magazine. “But at the time, if you were a woman, you didn’t really have a voice. If you were a woman it was just, ‘Be beautiful and shut up.’”

Without Karina’s presence lighting up the screen with such seemingly effortless ease, however, that age wouldn’t have looked nearly so joyous and full of life.