In the American cinephile circles of the 1960s, each new film from the French director Jean-Luc Godard was an event. Vital film critics like Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael and public intellectuals like Susan Sontag weighed in, creating a near-constant colloquy on how this director was reinventing cinema. The buzz and argument were equally fevered in Paris, Mr. Godard’s home at the time.
But Anna Karina, the Danish-born model turned actress who during this period was Mr. Godard’s muse, leading lady and wife — one of the screen’s great beauties and an enduring symbol of the French New Wave — doesn’t recollect the hype or intellectual foment. Reminiscing about working with Mr. Godard, she largely remembers freedom and fun.
“We did not see ourselves as remaking cinema at the time, at least not in my view,” Ms. Karina, now 75, said, speaking in English by phone from Los Angeles. “Myself and the other actors were not part of the industry; we weren’t inside the star system. We were running around, shooting in the streets, hiding behind trees to do our makeup. It was a very simple way of working.”
Ms. Karina, who lives in France, is making a rare visit to the United States, where, in Los Angeles and New York, she is presenting several Godard films at various theaters. On Friday, she will appear at Film Forum in Manhattan for a newly restored version of Mr. Godard’s wry, eccentric quasi-caper “Band of Outsiders” (1964).
She met Mr. Godard when she was still in her teens. He was preparing his debut feature, “Breathless,” and wanted to cast her in a bit role; she balked at its nudity requirement. They began a romance, acted opposite each other in an Eric Rohmer short and married in 1961.
When he was a critic in the 1950s, Mr. Godard wrote, “The cinema does not query the beauty of a woman, it only doubts her heart, records her perfidy” and “sees only her movements.”
Ms. Karina, 10 years younger than Mr. Godard, cheerfully allowed that their relationship had more than a touch of “Pygmalion” to it, and she spoke admiringly of him as a teacher, recalling his erudition with some awe. Their films together can be read as a multivolume work about their relationship.
In “Le Petit Soldat,” their first film together (although its release was held up for several years by French censors), she was the young revolutionary as object of desire. In “A Woman Is a Woman” (1961) she was a stripper flirting with domesticity. In “Vivre Sa Vie,” Ms. Karina played a desultory beauty who drifts into streetwalking on the way to cinematic sainthood.
“Band of Outsiders” saw her as naïve, coquettish but clever, with a streak of mischief. In “Alphaville,” she was a robotic woman of the bleak future, introduced to love via poetry by the tough guy Eddie Constantine. For their final collaborations, Mr. Godard made his soon-to-be-ex-wife a femme fatale. (They divorced in 1965.) In “Pierrot Le Fou,” she seduces and double-crosses Jean-Paul Belmondo, and in “Made in U.S.A.” she gender-reverses the trench-coated noir antihero, leaving a trail of corpses.
“We appreciated that what we were doing was different through the way Jean-Luc directed us, physically,” she said on the phone. “In older Hollywood movies, a character will make an entrance, close a door, light a cigarette, sit down, have a drink. In Jean-Luc’s movies, you were doing everything at once, and sometimes you wouldn’t shut the door all the way. Sometimes your cigarette wouldn’t light on first try. You were always moving through the scene in an active way that was more like being than acting.”
While Mr. Godard never worked from a standard script, Ms. Karina insisted that the actors were not improvising. “He would come in with prepared texts for us, which we rehearsed, and were required to say as he presented to us.”
She added: “The only thing I can recall being allowed to improvise was the little singsong ‘I don’t know what to do’ chant in ‘Pierrot Le Fou.’ Which I came up with because I literally did not know what to do!”
The Godard-Karina relationship was famously tumultuous. She told a dizzying story of the pair’s embarking on an impromptu road trip to the South of France: “Maybe I didn’t understand Jean-Luc exactly. There I was thinking we’d have a nice holiday in the South of France; about 200 kilometers in, I look at him and say, ‘You’re not happy.’ And he says, ‘I’m not unhappy, I’m just a little disappointed, I canceled a meeting with Truffaut in Paris.’ So he turns back. And after 100 kilometers, he looks at me and says ‘You’re not happy,’ and he turns around again. And so it goes.”
Ms. Karina said the turmoil did not bleed into their working relationship until very late. But when she recalled Mr. Godard’s presenting her with a difficult monologue on the set of “Made in U.S.A.” and insisting on shooting it right away, her incredulity and indignation made it sound as if she was upset about something that had happened just yesterday. “He was making a fool of me, and he did it on purpose,” she bristled.
After parting ways with Mr. Godard, she seemed to take roles that flirted with international stardom, working with eminent directors like George Cukor and Tony Richardson. Of the 1969 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark,” she said, “It was a mistake for Tony Richardson to change the setting from prewar Germany to contemporary London with all the miniskirts and the bling-bling.”
She is currently working on a memoir about her early years and putting together a stage musical for which she has written songs.
Ms. Karina seems to regard her work with Mr. Godard with pride and affection. “It’s very touching, wherever I go, to see very young people come to the films, whether in Japan or South Korea or the United States or France,” she said. “The films feel like they are not old, or old fashioned; they still feel fresh and touch people. It’s a fantastic gift he gave to me.”