Another luminary lost. Anna Karina, the personification of the Nouvelle Vague, passed away this December at the age of 79. Her kohl-rimmed doe eyes and chic Parisian style have come to symbolize an entire cinematic epoch. In October 2019, Virginie Viard’s debut ready-to-wear collection for Chanel drew from Karina’s New Wave look, but she was much more than the allure of her ensembles or the specific way she composed her makeup. It was ultimately the strength and nuance of her demeanor on-screen that rendered her an icon that will continue to resonate across time.
Radiant and free-spirited, Karina captivated director, and later husband, Jean-Luc Godard. He cast Karina in seven of his films, notably Une Femme et une Femmes, Pierrot Le Fou and Vivre Sa Vie. Together, they defined a cinematic movement that would defy convention and liberate the arts and minds of the era. “Little by little we [became] attracted to one another,” Karina told Vogue of her relationship with Godard. “We had something very special that you couldn’t get away from. It was magnetic.”
Karina’s role in 1961’s classic Une Femme Est Une Femme earned her the Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival. Portraying a woman who grapples with the division between her image, her projected persona, and her true, inner self (if such a thing is to exist), Karina’s performance delivers a recurring confrontation between realism and poetry. Her expressive portrayal is a testament to women in cinema and society in revolt, encapsulating the desperate search for the individual in culture. Indeed, Karina and Godard’s work together is inextricable from the political climate that eventually led to 1968’s student riots in Paris — conveying a moment, an attitude, and a psychology of rebellion that would define the late 1960s.
Like her character in Une Femme Est Une Femme, Anna Karina’s impact and meaning far exceed her person and her life. Following her films with Godard, Karina famously went on to work with the likes of Lucchino Visconti, Jacques Rivette, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, where her charm continued to endure. “I am an old story. L’histoire ancienne,” she once reflected. “But an old story can still be a good story, no?”