Anna Karina is wondering whether to say how many times she has been married.
“Oh la la! I prefer not to,” laughed the actress and director who was the face of the French New Wave.
“Less than Liz Taylor,” she joked, who went up the aisle eight times.
“I’ve been married to the same man for the last 40 years,” Karina protested, referring to her fourth husband, the American director Dennis Berry of “Stargate” and “Highlander” fame.
But it was with her first, Jean-Luc Godard, that Karina helped turn cinema on its head.
Now 77, the Danish-born Sixties icon is having something of a comeback.
Her 1973 film “Vivre ensemble” (Live Together) is back in cinemas, winning praise from the critics as a “little gem”.
And she has a new album out, fittingly called “I am an Adventurer.”
“I never expected this, it’s amazing,” she said, not having made a film in a decade or recorded a song for even longer.
Sitting at a restaurant table in the once bohemian Saint Germain des Pres on Paris’ Left Bank, Karina is as striking and elfin as ever, her kholed blue eyes burning out from under a felt hat.
It was around the corner at the Deux Magots cafe, then the hangout of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, where Karina was discovered 60 years ago, a 17-year-old waif in full flight from a troubled childhood.
- Renamed by Coco Chanel –
It was also where she became Anna Karina.
One day after modelling for a magazine “this extraordinary woman asked me, ‘What’s your name, darling?’
“‘Hanne Karin Bayer,’ I said.”
“No, no,” the woman replied, “you will be called Anna Karina.”
The woman was Coco Chanel, the founder of the fashion house that still bears her name.
And so began an incredible career as a model, actor, singer, director and muse.
Godard spotted her while he was walking on the Champs Elysees. She was hard to miss.
As the poster girl for Palmolive soap as well as one of its rivals, her face stared down from billboards on both sides of the grand Paris avenue.
He offered her a nude scene in “Breathless”, his first and most famous film, but she refused.
They were already a couple when, at barely 21, she won best actress at the Berlin film festival for his “A Woman is a Woman” in 1961.
But Godard was not the ideal partner for someone who had hardly known her father and had been all but abandoned by her mother.
“We loved each other a lot,” Karina told AFP, “but it was complicated to live with him” — a sentiment shared by his next wife, Anne Wiazemsky, whose account of their short marriage is the basis of the new film, “Redoubtable”.
- Godard’s disappearing acts –
“He was someone who could say to you, ‘I am going to get some cigarettes’ and come back three weeks later.”
At the beginning Godard’s dark glasses made him appear “scary” before Karina discovered his “magnificent almond eyes”.
But their love did not survive the loss of a child she was carrying.
It has been 20 years since she saw or heard from the reclusive director.
“He is in Switzerland and doesn’t open his door,” said Karina.
“No, it doesn’t make me sad. It’s his life after all.”
For all the talk of how the New Wave revolutionised cinema, the only women who ended up behind the camera were her and Agnes Varda.
Karina’s film, “Vivre ensemble”, is a tragic love story about a couple who can’t do exactly that.
A romance between a history teacher and a free spirited young women ends in drugs and domestic violence.
“It is a portrait of my youth. I saw people around me go down and die,” she recalled.
At the time, Karina was the first French actress to direct a feature film, and “everybody was saying, ‘How dare she.’ There was a real macho attitude.”
“I even thought for a while of using a man’s name because I was afraid of the reaction.”
Despite starring in more than 30 films, at first directing freaked her out.
But Karina knew she didn’t want to work in an off-the-cuff whirlwind manner like Godard, “who could do everything in five minutes”.
Macho attitudes were not just confined to the critics.
Karina will never forget being summoned by the press agent of “A Woman is a Woman” and finding him — as Harvey Weinstein is alleged to have been — almost naked in his bathrobe at the door of his apartment.
“I was so shocked that I leapt down the stairs and I nearly broke my neck.
“When a woman does not want something to go on she has to say stop.
“And she always has the right to change her mind,” Karina insisted.