Maybe there really is no meaning in life. When Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) painted his face blue before exploding in Pierrot le Fou (Godard, 1965), the film tapped into the absurdity of things, which we experience occasionally, maybe when facing an overwhelming event (unless you are a natural born existentialist). The director, Jean-Luc Godard, once commented that ‘Pierrot le Fou is not a film, but an attempt at cinema’ that ‘reminds us one must attempt to live.’ .
Like Godard, I’m merely trying to write a tribute as I think of Anna Karina, co-star in Pierrot le Fou, who passed away last Saturday at a Paris hospital, age 79. Strangely, I was also in Paris at the time. I went there to do some shows, and found myself in the midst of the chaos caused by the general strike in France: no metro service and few buses running, all of them completely packed, causing a lot of difficulty to move around town. I read the news that Anna Karina had died just as I was boarding in the plane back to Porto the next morning, and, literally with my head in the clouds, I had her in my mind on my journey back home. It felt like one of those occasional life’s events that causes us to wonder.
I feel lucky to have discovered Anna Karina by chance when I was 19, in widescreen technicolour, watching Pierrot le Fou at the Cinemateca (still one of my favourite hideout places in my hometown of Lisbon). When we are teenagers, the impact of certain films and music is so huge that their influence can last forever. ‘All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun’ is Godard’s famous thesis and that rings true here. Of course, if the girl is Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina), whose presence seems to irradiate out of the screen, and who is as good in singing and dancing as in acting, and if the gun holder paints his face blue before exploding himself on a sunny day (I forgot to describe the weather conditions in this scene earlier – real tragedy doesn’t only happen in rainy days, as in less imaginative scripts), the impression on the young spectator is easily imagined. All the ingredients – the Hollywood clichés, romance, murder, politics – were there; only put in a different order, mixed together as a form of bricollage – as in a true pop art dystopian film.
Along with other 1960s examples of the Nouvelle Vague, Pierrot le Fou was a mesmerising discovery for me at 19, and of course, Anna Karina’s presence on the screen played a big part. But more than simply enjoying it, I had a question that left me with mixed feelings: how was it possible that a film made four decades earlier seemed more modern than what was being made then? (The year was 2004 and another decade and a half has gone by, but I could pose the same question now). The experimental and abrupt editing, actors breaking the fourth wall, spontaneous and naturalistic acting with a very precise script, combined with extreme artifice – in the use of sound and music, for example – perhaps reminds us that we’re looking at art, not just film nor reality. And let’s consider the playfulness of it all. When did the world become so serious, if we assume that cultural products are a mirror of their time? Films used to have memorable songs, which helps us to remember them. Pierrot le Fou suddenly turns into a musical, when Marianne sings ‘Jamais je ne t’ai dit que t’aimerai toujours’, or the duet with Ferdinand/Pierrot ‘Ma Ligne de Chance’. The songs also help to blur the line between fantasy and reality, something that seems present throughout.
Anna Karina seems to embody all the traits of those modern and turbulent times that were the 1960s: her face, her gestures, her whole style, in these early Godard films, are like a time capsule of a period that is long gone but that – at least in my perception – didn’t seem to become that old. Maybe she and Belmondo are performing gender in a traditional way, when seen from a 2019 lens, but somehow a real character and personality seem to emanate past the pretty scenes. It has occurred to me before that she has been admired by both women and men for generations after, and that her style has been copied by girls who watch her films. She is a different icon to Brigitte Bardot, described as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ at that time and considered closer to a male fantasy (the fact that Bardot publicly supports Le Pen doesn’t help her current popularity on the left or centre). Anna Karina, never stopped being celebrated during her lifetime unlike a lot of artists that are quickly forgotten and only reappear briefly in the media after they die.
Think about the songs written by Gainsbourg for Anna Karina one of which she performed with him, ‘Ne Dis Rien’. This is the composer who set up a young France Gall to sing ‘Les Sucettes’ when she did not understand its double entendre and Godard made Brigitte Bardot look frivolous in the opening scene of Le Mépris (1963). But Karina faces Gainsbourg directly and a little challengingly in the eye while dancing together in the clip of the song ‘Ne Dis Rien’. And she never becomes a joke in any of her films. Relevant here is that she was married to Godard at the time. In the short clip ‘Qui êtes vous, Anna Karina?’ (1967), in which a few artists and directors get to talk about her, Gainsbourg has this to say: that ‘she has a personality, which is rare; a sense of humour, which is also rare’; and ‘a wide range of skills which included vocal abilities, dancing and acting – which all together was not bad at all’. He did seem to respect some women after all – or at least this rare one.
Time is not linear, which is old, but not fake news. So, how much has the world suddenly aged without Anna Karina?
 Godard in ‘Let’s talk about Pierrot,’ in Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, ed. Alain Berglia, trans. David Willis (Paris, 1985), 263.
Rita Braga is a songwriter passionate about film culture. She recently concluded the MA Performance Making at Goldsmiths University of London www.superbraguita.com