Anna Karina & Jean-Luc Godard on the set of Bande à part (1964, via getty)
An Inauspicious Beginning:
“In 1959, Jean-Luc Godard attempted to create publicity for his forthcoming film by publishing a gag advertisement. Written in the style of a classified ad, it read: Jean-Luc Godard, who has completed ‘Breathless’ and is preparing ‘Le Petit Soldat’, seeks young woman between 18 & 27 to make her both his actress and his friend.
The prank seemed to be a smarmy attempt to use his growing fame to seek young women in the guise of an open casting call. In fact, Godard already had an actress in mind for the role, a young woman who had rejected a role in Breathless - Anna Karina (the role had required partial nudity and for this reason, Karina refused it).
Godard sent Karina a telegram asking to speak with her about a different role in a different film, possibly the lead. She met Godard at Beauregard’s small office. She took a seat. He walked around her several times and told her to come back the next day to sign a contract. She asked whether she would have to get undressed. He said, ‘No, it’s a political film.’ She said that she wouldn’t know how to give a political speech; he said, in a colossal deception, ‘There aren’t any speeches, so come sign tomorrow.’
Shortly after Karina’s contract was signed, Godard’s prank ad was published. The effect of this publicity stunt was to make her casting appear to be the result of a response to the ad. Unaware of the ad, Karina was returning to her apartment when her concierge reported the contents of an article in France-Soir, to the effect that Godard had met Karina through a want ad placed in a trade journal, looking for his “actress & soul mate”. Karina asked the concierge what that meant. To the concierge, it meant the actress had slept with the director to get her role. The young actress, who was furious at what she considered a humiliating insinuation, returned to Godard’s offices in tears, ready to repudiate the contract & face the consequences. The next day, Godard sent her a telegram making poetic reference to her Danish nationality – ‘A character from Hans Christian Anderson has no right to cry’ – which also suggested that through her association with him, she had embarked on a fairy-tale destiny. She ignored the telegram; the director appeared at her door with an enormous bouquet of roses to make amends and apologized for the ad, which, he said, was his partner’s idea.
Though Karina had already signed her contract, Godard began his effort to win her over to his cause. Karina recalled, ‘He invited me to a screening of Breathless. I didn’t like it at all. Then we had dinner together. None of this appealed to me in the least. I was basically a little suspicious.’ Nonetheless, she accepted Godard’s request that she do a screen test.
Karina: ‘One week later, during the screen test, he interrogated me – ‘do you like to read? Which books? Which music? And what about boys? Do you like boys? What kind of boys?’ Good Lord, what does he want from me? I didn’t want to answer. First of all, I thought it was none of his business and besides, it seemed very strange. I was on the verge of tears. I said to him: ‘Listen, this really is none of your business! He didn’t insist.’
But of course, since Godard sought to eliminate the barrier between the personal & the artistic, between life on-camera and off, he would soon make it his business.
-excerpted from Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody