‘A Woman Is a Woman’: Falling in Love with Karina, Godard and the Wave

A Woman Is a Woman 1961 Movie - Film Essay

A Woman Is a Woman (Une femme est une femme, 1961) wasn’t the first film Anna Karina appeared in. That would be a 1959 Danish short called The Girl with Shoes (Pigen og skoene), directed by Ib Schmedes. It wasn’t even the first film she made as part of the French New Wave or with one of its leading figures (and her eventual husband), Jean-Luc Godard. That would be Le Petit Soldat, shot in the spring of 1960 but not released until 1963 due to its highly charged political content and the resulting censorship. But when A Woman Is a Woman was unveiled at the 1961 Berlin International Film Festival, it essentially marked the public screen debut of this charming young star (another film made prior, Michel Deville’s comedy Tonight or Never, would not be released until later that year). Looking back on the film today, with Karina’s subsequent work as context as well as decades of film history to influence the perspective and, tragically, her December 2019 passing, it’s somewhat difficult to conceive of A Woman Is a Woman as the cheekily fresh entry it once was. But several qualities remain abundantly clear, perhaps even more so now than they did then: Karina was one of cinema’s great, radiant beauties; a tremendous talent with unheralded range. For many, she was the face of a specific culture, sensibility and movement that she, as much as anyone, helped to distinguish. 

Little of this impact — then or now — has much to do with the plot of A Woman Is a Woman. In terms of its surface story, the film is admittedly on the slight side. Karina plays a rather modest exotic dancer named Angéla. She feels her biological clock is ticking away, and after her plea to have a child is rebuffed by her boyfriend, Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy), who would agree but only after the two are married, she teases with the idea of seeking the requisite “service” elsewhere, namely from Émile’s best friend, Alfred Lubitsch (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who also happens to fancy Angéla anyway. And that’s more or less it. Yet despite this threadbare scenario, or maybe because of it — the simplicity allowing ample opportunity for the ostensibly superfluous incidents that prove more memorable in the first place — Karina reveled in the material, proving along the way to be the most amendable actor for Godard’s distinct methodology. 

Shot largely in a studio, but one that recreated the desired apartment setting in meticulous, if not always practical, detail, A Woman Is a Woman was at one point referred to by Godard as a neorealist musical — an “absolute contradiction.” But as has often been pointed out, this seemingly incongruous linkage isn’t without some significant justification. This film, like those earlier, influential Italian precursors, is very much rooted in the banalities of daily life within a short span of time, traits prominently evinced in the depiction of Angéla’s occupational practice and her domestic custom. She almost constantly appears at work, at home, or is seen getting from one location to another, simply existing during what is commonly perceived as extraneous “downtime.” Befitting her namesake, she floats angelically down the sidewalk; she is spirited and ebullient, a bold primary color in a world of pale irrelevance, fading to the background. Contrasting with the emphasized grace of her mobility, though, coupled with the innate lightness of Karina’s demeanor and Godard’s free-wheeling dollies, she nevertheless bares her own peculiar penchant for treating the events of her life with great weight and, at the same time, very little consequence. She is, like Godard’s description of A Woman Is a Woman, something of a contradiction herself. 

A Woman Is a Woman Movie Film

Angéla is extremely sociable at work, her pleasant disposition aided by Karina’s associative, contagious charisma, which serves to moderate what may, to some, be seen as a tolerably tawdry occupation. Donning then impishly removing her sailor-themed schoolgirl outfit, she enacts her musical routine with gusto and an utterly adorable guilelessness. In these sequences and those interspersed throughout the film, notably as Karina buzzes about her apartment, practically dancing her way through the necessities of life, Godard’s camera, manned by stalwart cinematographer Raoul Coutard, is absolutely smitten with the allure of this youthful actress. However, for as much as Karina is evidentially the primary visual and narrative focus of A Woman Is a Woman (Godard’s third feature film and his first in color and Cinemascope), here even more than usual he delivers a picture that is also indicative of his own unique approach toward cinematic execution. Proceeding at a fantastic pace (breathless, if you will), with fragmented individual scenes, relentless digressions and rapid exchanges of dialogue, the film runs just 84 minutes, and it doesn’t take long for Godard to engage his trademark affinity for self-conscious nods to the audience and chock-a-block allusions to other films and the process of filmmaking itself. Beginning with Karina’s pre-credit announcement of “Lights! Camera! Action!” Godard and his leading lady set the stage for the histrionic experience about to unfold, calling overt attention to the artifice of the production with supplemental title cards serving the same function; one proclaiming “Once upon a time” commences the attention paid to the fantasy of the whole façade, or at the very least its marked sense of unreality, decisively breaking away the fourth wall further within the first few minutes as Karina gives the camera a mischievous wink (a gesture Belmondo echoes not long after). The patchwork of music so central to A Woman Is a Woman is, likewise, intermittently scattered throughout the film, adding aural punctuation points at times with a direct, diegetic correlation to the on-screen action, at times wholly removed for purely melodramatic effect; at times this will consist of a prolonged period of Michel Legrand’s lush score, while other scenes will feature a portion of some contemporary pop tune. It all blends together in a characteristically Godardian disharmonious harmony, peppered alongside the street noise and sound effects that are themselves composed with pronounced randomness and ambiguous purpose or import. 

Equally indiscriminate are the behavioral quirks of A Woman Is a Woman’s main players (and even those who aren’t). Angéla and Émile bow to the audience before acting out their “little farce,” Alfred wonders aloud if what is taking place is a “tragedy or a comedy” and Angéla tosses eggs into the air, dashes into the hallway to take a phone call, and swiftly returns in time to catch the descending breakfast. These good-humored gestures signal the film’s enduring and endearing juxtaposition of tones, working so well in unison with Godard’s variable technique, a technique that is also abounding with endless word play and impulsive verbal and physical gags. When text pops up on screen to present the thoughts of the characters and, in some cases, the reasons they behave the way they do, or when Angéla and Émile refuse to speak to each other and instead amass a collection of books to use their titles in conjunction with some handwritten notes to make their point (not all of which makes sense: Émile’s apparent accusation of Angéla being a “Peruvian mummy”), these comparable supplements could also be seen as mere gimmickry on the part of Godard. But they do more than that, for they also submit the theme of emotions and sentiments left unsaid. As Godard would explore and dissect throughout his career, A Woman Is a Woman is an unbridled examination of broken or stunted communication and the complexities of human interaction. And therein lies a benefit of one as expressive as Karina. 

A Woman Is a Woman Movie Film

Voiced through Angéla and illustrated by her sensitive countenance, Godard questions existence at large but a woman’s role in the world more specifically, using this self-reflexivity to complement the quintessence of Angéla as one who is quite naïve and yet entirely sincere. The men in her life are derisive, callous, and generally disdainful toward women, Angéla in particular, so her frustrations are easily understood. They treat her anxieties like a joke, exemplifying a fickle, cruel and careless contention between the sexes. Although Angéla is, to be sure, a capricious character, prone to fleeting emotions and erratic action — Émile says she is “always asking for the impossible” — at least she knows what she’s after, placing her bets on her horoscope and a device used to determine the time of ideal fertility. While her desired pregnancy is thus treated with a sense of individual immediacy, the way she stuffs a pillow up her shirt and poses with the swollen midsection suggests she is more enamored with the idea or perception of pregnancy than the facts of the situation (at minimum, she hardly seems to be in the most suitable economic state for child-rearing). Still, there she is. Angéla wants what she wants and she is who she is, unapologetically so. A woman is a woman, and she need not be anything more, even if that woman, when played by Karina, is quite something more indeed.

Born Hanne Karin Bayer, on Sept. 22, 1940, Karina entered show business by way of singing and, most consequentially, modeling, arriving in Paris at age 17 with little money, fewer contacts and no firm grasp of the native language. A fortuitous encounter in a cafe (the stuff right out of a movie) led to a modeling contract and, eventually, the providential mixing with several high-profile names of the industry, Coco Chanel among them (Chanel being the one who apparently suggested Karina’s new professional moniker). Godard first saw Karina in advertisements for Palmolive and Monsavon soap while casting Breathless (À bout de souffle) in 1959 and offered her a small role in the picture, which Karina rejected when told she would have to take her clothes off. Godard did manage to secure Karina for his sophomore effort, Le Petit Soldat, after which the regularly jealous director pleaded with his budding ingénue to give up acting altogether. Upon seeing her in Tonight or Never, however, he decided to cast her again in A Woman Is a Woman and the two married during production, their wedding photos taken by the great Agnès Varda, who knowingly cast the couple in her own 1962 film, Cleo from 5 to 7. While A Woman Is a Woman met with its fair share of critical acclaim — the Danish-born Karina won best actress at the Berlin festival and the film received the Jury Prize for, as a title happily asserts at the start of the movie, its “originality, youth, audacity, and impertinence” — it was a box office failure. All the same, Karina continued to display her remarkable versatility, especially in her subdued follow-up with Godard, My Life to Life (Vivre sa vie, 1962). Even as their relationship was a frequently rocky reflection of the films they made together — it was a distressing union marred by a miscarriage, her suicide attempt and their divorce in 1965 — they worked together on seven features and one short.  

A Woman Is a Woman Movie Film

Produced by Carlo Ponti and Georges de Beauregard, icons of European cinema, A Woman Is a Woman is replete with literary citations and an effusive elation regarding all things cinema, making it a film as movie mad as its creator. Jeanne Moreau briefly appears as herself, discussing her latest project with Godard’s fellow countryman and New Wave counterpart François Truffaut, 1962’s Jules and Jim, and reference is made to Truffaut’s second feature, 1960’s Shoot the Piano Player, as well as Godard’s Breathless. Alfred’s surname is a nod to the legendary Ernst Lubitsch, and one delightful snippet in A Woman Is a Woman pays tribute to the luminaries of Hollywood’s musical comedy genre, an impromptu ode to figures like Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. And yet (and this certainly wouldn’t always be the case for Godard), these self-conscious distancing devices do little to impede the dramatic core of the film, which is, again, in large part due to the sincerity of Karina’s performance. There is no amount of cinephile giddiness that can deter the emotional resonance conveyed by this phenomenal actress, and if A Woman Is a Woman is truly “the most joyful of Godard’s films … perhaps his only joyful film,” as Godard biographer Colin MacCabe contends, then a large part of that needs to be credited to Karina’s buoyant effervescence and her ability to communicate an irresistibly playful bearing with an equally potent vulnerability. Even more than the film itself, it is she who imparts an enchanting warmth and romantic magnetism. It is Karina who embodied the freedom, fascination and the unpredictability that would define the French New Wave. It is Karina who made so many fall in love — with her and with cinema as an extraordinary, exultant medium.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, The Retro Set, The Moving Image and Diabolique Magazine. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.