Anna Karina, the grand dame of French New Wave cinema enchants Melbourne with her anecdotes.
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27 Jul 2009 - 3:29 PM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 12:54 PM

There will be a fair few extra Fedoras donning the heads of Melbournians after a weekend with Anna Karina. The Danish actress, who first gained widespread fame and iconic status as the wife, muse and star of seven films by Jean Luc Godard, answered questions and shared secrets with her adoring fans during her MIFF 09 retrospective.

Anna Karina is a woman with a story for every occasion. Born Hanne Karin Blarke Bayer, she arrived in Paris at 17 and was instructed to change her name – by none other than Coco Chanel. She was offered a small part by JLG in Breathless but she refused because she would have to take her clothes off. JLG didn't understand why. He had seen Anna in a soap commercial – her skin was showing in that! But for Anna, the bubbles were “like having a fur coat on”. When she received another telegram from the director, it was to audition for the lead in a “political film”. The film was Le Petit Soldat.

It would be fair to say that when Anna tells these stories everyone in her midst is mesmerised. She has an undeniable movie-star presence – her voice gravelled from (at a guess) one-too-many Gauloise cigarettes, her trademark dark fringe still visible underneath her black Fedora. She wears bold red and black coloured clothes and large silver earrings. She is generous in her reminiscence and even tries to accommodate the inevitable questions of her relationship with Godard.

Karina and JLG married during the filming of A Woman is a Woman. She won the Silver Berlin Bear, Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival, 1961. Jean-Luc won a special jury prize and the film was nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear. She was twenty-one and he was ten years her senior.

Karina can't name her favourite film, choosing instead to quote Godard. “As Jean-Luc always says, films are like children. Some of them look a little bit better than the others. Some of them may be a little more happy or charming…” Of all the directors Karina has worked with though, Godard “was of course” her favourite. She says, “He taught me everything. When I met him, I was young. He gave me all of these presents, these beautiful parts to do. Also we had a real, big love story. Full of passion. Of course like all passions, it can't last…. but we're not going to talk about that, it's too sad.”

The “Anna Karina” MIFF retrospective includes the Godard films, A Woman is a Woman (1961) Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and Alphaville (1965). Also screening is the comedy that drove Godard to a jealous distraction, Michel Deville's Tonight or Never (1961) and Jacques Rivette's The Nun (1966) a film that Anna calls “a gift”. She had played the role of Suzanne in the theatre under the direction of Rivette. Everyone who saw it “thought it was very touching”, including Brigitte Bardot who came to see it with actor Sami Frey, “cried when she saw it. She thought it was very moving.” When it was released as a film, it caused what Anna calls “the biggest scandal you have ever seen in France”. Even now she seems incredulous at the response from the Catholic Church who “were so angry”.

Other films screening at the festival as part of the retrospective are Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Chinese Routlette (1976) and Anna (Pierre Koralnik, 1967) a made-for-TV musical feature with songs written for Karina by Serge Gainsbourg of whom she was an admirer.

She clearly relishes the window of time she had with Gainsbourg before he met Bardot and then, Jane Birkin. When that happened, she says “My little place was taken away from me.” Her favourite song in the film? Roller Girl, in which Karina embodies the epitome of geek-chic.

Anna introduced the film that bears her name to a full house. The same cannot be said for her most recent film, Victoria (2008) her second as director which screened at 9.15pm on Sunday night – a slot that apparently suits only the most die-hard of fans.

For Victoria, Karina was approached by Canadian Hejer Charf to write, direct and star in a self-financed, independently produced road-movie. Karina accepted the chance because she felt she would have the liberty of maintaining her creative freedom. In Victoria, Karina plays a woman who becomes a benefactor to a pair of singing drag queens. The film has surrealist overtones, including references to Luis Buñuel, and relies very heavily on coincidence. Music for Victoria is composed by Philippe Katerine with whom Karina has recorded the album, Un historie d'amour and performed in concert.

At the Q&A that followed the screening, Karina was at pains to remind us of the low budget. It's a point she labours – Karina doesn't like asking for money! It's the reason she produced her 1972 directorial debut entirely herself.

Perhaps my favourite Karina-MIFF 09 story is that of this film, Living Together. She had thought that after 50-odd films and numerous theatre roles, she would direct her own film. She had a tiny crew and budget. The film was shot over three-and-a-half weeks in Karina's Paris apartment and New York.

It was a different time, she says. People would say, “Actresses don't know how to make films” and “it will be very difficult for you to be in front of the camera and behind the camera”. Karina says now, “it's stupid to say that. Actors and actresses have done a lot of films with their legs, with their arms, with the whole crew and the camera. Why shouldn't they be as good as a first-assistant director who has made three or four films? They've done it with their body! It's very important to do things with your body. It's like making love…. Everything you like to do is not difficult.”

And the moral of that story? Living Together was invited by her friend, François Truffaut to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, in Critics' Week.

The “Anna Karina retrospective” screens until the final day of MIFF. See http://www.melbournefilmfestival.com.au