We’ve gotten to the point where icons of the 1960s are now dying off of old age, and last month that number was joined by Anna Karina, who passed away in Paris at age 79. She’d hitchhiked there six decades earlier from her native Denmark, after a somewhat tumultuous upbringing involving an abandoning father and stints living with grandparents, in foster care, and with her mother. Her continued success as an advertising model caught the attention of film critic turned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, though she declined a small part in his 1960 debut feature Breathless upon realizing it would involve nudity. Nonetheless, he gave her the female lead in his second film, La petit soldat, though due to political censorship (it was about the still-recent Algerian War), it was blocked from release for some time.
Thus audiences outside France (where in the meantime she made a few more purely commercial local features for other directors) saw her for the first time in Godard’s third and fourth features: A Woman is a Woman, a character study of a yearning striptease artiste incongruously done in the bright colors and Cinemascope format of lavish musicals; and the contrastingly sober, B&W Vivre sa vie, where her newly arrived emigre to Paris is much less lucky than Anna Karina was—hoping to break into showbiz, she instead gets pulled into prostitution.
These and her other roles for Godard (to whom she was married 1961-65) made her highly visible not only as his “muse,” but as that of the whole Nouvelle Vague. An expressive young beauty, she was a born actress as well as camera subject, despite the lack of any real training. Her ability to shift from naturalism to conspicuous play-acting (including several famous musical numbers) ideally suited Godard’s mix of genre homage and deconstruction, his simultaneous love and critique of cinematic conventions. But as dramatized in the underrated recent biopic Godard Mon Amour by Michel Hazanavicius (of The Artist), in which Louis Garrel played the humorously exasperating auteur and Stacy Martin his post-Karina muse Anne Wiazemsky, Jean-Luc could be a difficult collaborator—and a downright impossible husband, simply disappearing for days or weeks at a time.
After that partnership ended, Karina worked all over Europe for an eccentric range of directors including Fassbinder, Ulli Lommel, Rivette, Visconti, Schlondorff, Tony Richardson, George Cukor, Benoit Jacquot and Raoul Ruiz, as well as making a few appearances in generally uninspired English-language films. (She lived for a time in Los Angeles with her fourth, final spouse, director and frequent collaborator Dennis Berry.) She directed a couple films herself, had a singing career, and wrote four novels. If she remained more a beloved symbol of New Wave creativity than a renowned “great actress”—though no one can deny Vivre sa vie, for instance, is a great performance—she seems to have lived a rich, diverse and fulfilled artistic life to the end.
The Castro has programmed two double-bills this month as a memorial tribute: This Sat/4 it’s Vivre sa vie and 1964’s Band of Outsiders, in which she’s the ambivalent girlfriend/reluctant accomplice to two amateur thieves (and they all dance the Madison together in a cafe). Thurs/24 brings A Woman is a Woman aka Une femme est une femme and 1965’s Pierrot le Fou, co-starring with Jean-Paul Belmondo in the latter as a pair of fugitive lovers. It was the star and director’s final collaboration. On Sat/25 the Roxie is also playing the same year’s Alphaville, the cryptic, sci-fi tinged espionage quasi-spoof in which she’s the ostensible love interest to Eddie Constantine’s private dick Lemmy Caution.
There are pleasures to be had in later Godard, to be sure, with the still-active filmmaker’s recent The Image Book no exception. But no one personified his generational notion of the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” like Karina, and when she was gone from his cinema—replaced by a whole lot more Marx—viewers not only found Godard less lovable, they realized how little the famously cranky semi-recluse wanted to be loved. (Castro Theatre info here. Roxie info here.)
Other film events in this first post-holiday season week are very miscellaneous, with the only significant new commercial arrival being yet another reboot of The Grudge—a remake of the 2004 remake of the 2002 Japanese horror hit Ju-on. It might actually be interesting, given that it’s directed by Nicolas Pesce (of indie oddities Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother), and has a more-intriguing-than usual cast including Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir, John Cho and Jacki Weaver.
Among arthouse newcomers, there’s a must for dance lovers: Alla Kovgan’s Cunningham, an overview of the late avant-garde choreographer’s career and work up through the late 1960s, at which point he’d become an accepted (if still challenging) part of the art form’s mainstream. Mixing archival materials with new stagings of seminal pieces, this 3-D documentary doesn’t utilize depth of field as strikingly as Wim Wender’s Pina (about choreographer Bausch) did, and I felt ambivalent about seeing so many works not originally designed for site-specific performance performed as if they were. But then, Merce Cunningham always tended to trigger ambivalence as well as fascination—unless you were a full convert, of course. This feature does preserve his legacy for future generations who may have no idea how revolutionary his ideas were when first introduced.
Other notable arrivals include Invisible Life, Brazilian director (Madame Sata, Futuro Beach) Karim Ainouz’s adaptation of a Martha Batalha novel about two middle-class sisters in 1950s Rio who are kept separated over ensuing decades by a combination of personal choice, family lies, prejudice, and class differences. It’s an interesting story concept, and the film has landed on a number of year-end best lists. But I found the protagonists (played by Carol Duarte and Julia Stocker) irritatingly brittle and self-involved, feeling little sympathy for their plight until a late section beautifully acted by the now 90-year-old Fernanda Montenegro of Central Station. Invisible Life opens in SF and San Rafael Fri/3, with Berkeley and Palo Alto theaters following Fri/10.
Likewise easier to applaud for intentions than impact is Francois Girard’s The Song of Names, another decades-spanning, music-based drama from the Quebecois director of The Red Violin and Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Girard is a polished craftsman, but this tale about the search for a child violin prodigy who disappears after searching for his family of Polish Jews (presumed killed in the Holocaust) sometimes stumbles under the weight of Jeffrey Caine’s often heavy-handed screenplay. Tim Roth and Clive Owen lead an earnest cast that does manage some powerful moments. It opens Fri/3 at the Clay, Fri/10 at the Shattuck, and other Bay Area theaters following.
Over at the Roxie, Jon Kasbe’s When Lambs Become Lions examines the ethical complexities of elephant hunting in Kenya, where poachers risk their own lives winnowing an already-endangered pachyderm populace for the lucrative ivory trade. They have few other options for supporting themselves and their families. On the other side, of course, are the rangers, conservationists and animal-rights activists who see no justification for the rapidly approaching extinctions of numerous species around the globe. Shot over three years’ course, this documentary promises a vivid look at some very complicated issues—ones not at all helped by our POTUS’ oblivious rubber-stamping of eased hunting regulations both at home and for Americans (like his trophy-crazed idiot sons) abroad. It opens Sat/4. More info here.
Also playing the Roxie this week is the 2019 Sundance Short Film Tour, a 97-minute program of seven cinematic miniatures from last year’s festival. (The 2020 festival starts in three weeks.) It runs a gamut from comedy, drama and fantasy to nonfiction and animation, with entries from as far afield as Tunisia and Estonia. More info here.
Likewise opening Friday for a week’s run is another high-end sampler: The Rafael Film Center’s For Your Consideration series, which hand-picks from among the films (92 this year) submitted annually to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as contenders for the Best Foreign Language Feature award. Some of those showcased here have already played local theaters (like Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, the Colombian Monos, or above-mentioned Invisible Life). Others will be having regular local runs soon, such as Czech The Painted Bird (from Jerzy Kosinsky’s novel), Italian mob saga The Traitor, Norwegian bestseller adaptation Out Stealing Horses, Russian Beanpole and Moroccan Adam. But this series may be your only chance to see still others on the big screen, including entries from Afghanistan, Algeria, Iceland and Hungary. More info here.
Speaking of the year’s highlights, here’s my two cents on the best features of 2019, in no particular order of preference:
US Narrative Features
Brittany Runs a Marathon
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Sword of Trust
Mickey and the Bear
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
The Dead Center
The Cat and the Moon
This is Not Berlin
Sluts in a Good Way
Hagazussa: The Heathen’s Curse
Too Late to Die Young
In the Aisles
The Ground Beneath Her Feet
Pain & Glory
By the Grace of God
The Silence of Others
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorcese
Mike Wallace is Here
The Great Hack
Barbara Rubin & Exploding NY Underground
Cold Case Hammarskjold