Is Anna (Pierre Koralnik, 1967) desperately modish or a critique of desperate modishness? Like most social satires, it prefers to have its cake and eat it. Anna depicts a world that is superficial, conformist, inauthentic, hierarchical, disposable, and empty. It asks us, nevertheless, to revel in its bright surfaces, reflections, and absurd fish-eyed compositions. It is a world navigated by two protagonists: one condemned through his moral shortsightedness to forever wander through this seductive hell; and the other who, despite wearing a pair of outsize glasses, sees the world for what it is, and escapes.

This musical comedy’s structuring and ethical joke is that its male lead is a photographer who cannot see what’s right under his nose. Serge (Jean-Claude Brialy) is modelled on Thomas in the previous year’s Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) – one could say that Anna does for Paris what Antonioni’s film did for Swinging London. In his obsessive search for the ‘truth’ of something that he has photographed, Serge – like Thomas – is fatally diverted from the mastery, celebrity, and coherent identity conferred on him by his profession. The image is of Anna Karina, but her features have reduced to a kind of pop iconicity, so it is no wonder that he overlooks the real Anna who works in his office, and with whom he even has some fond conversations. He searches for his ideal everywhere, and sees her image everywhere, but she is always out of reach.

Serge is the classic nouvelle vague hero, the complacent intellectual undone by the chase for the ‘impossible girl’. Anna is a satire on many aspects of the cultural moment – such as artworld fads, fashion and TV, or the burgeoning post-modern cannibalisation of the past. It picks up or anticipates themes from photographer William Klein’s fashion satire Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (1966), Jacques Demy’s contemporary musical Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967), and Roger Vadim’s comic book adaptation Barbarella (1968). However, it is through and against the nouvelle vague that Anna defines its primary impulses, particularly the work of Jean-Luc Godard – director Pierre Koralnik’s next project, Françoise et Udo… (1968) would even show Godard on set as he transitioned from apolitical cinephile to experimental radical. This intertext is hardly surprising. Despite making films for many other directors – most notably Jacques Rivette, the scandal around whose La Religieuse (The Nun, 1966) gave Karina an unexpected notoriety at the time of Anna – Karina remains best-known for her collaborations with Godard, her husband between 1961 and 1965. Her last film before Anna had been Godard’s Made in USA (1966), shot after their divorce, and which also includes a haunting cameo from Marianne Faithfull, apparently singing to herself. 

There is a sense in Anna of Karina throwing off shackles and simply having fun. Her performances for Godard are rightly celebrated as high points in cinema history, and many of them feature her singing and/or dancing – not least her first starring role in Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961), an Eastmancolor love-letter to the Hollywood musical with Anna co-star and fellow nouvelle vague icon Brialy as her rebarbative husband.1 It is worth noting that the two Godard features in which Karina does not sing or dance – Alphaville (1965) and Made in USA – are the chilliest of their collaborations, demonstrating how crucial Karina was to the heart of those heady, and head-y, films.

That allowed, we must recognise that Karina and her characters for Godard and other directors are kept in check. They are mute and decorous; processed and delimited by both the directors’ conceptions and the male protagonists’ sexist fantasies. Even the celebrated dances that brighten Une femme est une femme, Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live, 1961) and Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964) are highly formal, rigid, and restricted in their choreography. One could argue that this rigidity and restriction perfectly expresses those films’ focus on women with limited options, or disguises Karina’s limited terpsichorean abilities. Anna certainly blows that latter assumption away. Une femme est une femme namechecks the elegant but generally submissive Cyd Charisse as a model for the Karina character; if she has an inner Ann Miller, it is suppressed. Anna unleashes Karina’s Ann Miller – not just in her dancing, as she bounds beyond the bounds of the frame, limbs flailing in abandon, but in her performance as a whole. We are treated to a glorious, wide-mouthed, smoky cackle that we never heard in Godard; to slouching, clowning, funny faces, and impersonations. In Anna, Karina has the physical and performative freedom that Godard gave Belmondo in À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), but rarely if ever gave to his female actors.

This freedom, and the difference between the film’s two conceptions of Anna, can be charted in the treatment of two songs, ‘Pistolet Joe’ and the earlier ‘Roller Girl’. Both are sung by Karina and inspired by American comics, but both are different in effect. In ‘Pistolet Joe’, Anna is a projection of Serge’s desire, and appears in numerous, sexually provocative guises, dispersed across space and time as demanded by his uncontrollable libido. ‘Roller Girl’ (note the gendered song titles) is performed by Anna in her own apartment, in her own clothes. She adopts the Roller Girl persona to voice her own anxieties around creativity, boredom, exile, love, and identity. Koralnik maintains the integrity of Karina’s performance by restricting it to the same space, thus emphasising the singular mind and body of both character and actress. Both songs – like so much in the film – are delirious audio-visual sequences, but where ‘Pistolet Joe’ is empty razzle dazzle, ‘Roller Girl’ is a complex fusion of character revelation, popular culture, and the musical genre. It is worthy of the towering figure of the French cine-musical, Jacques Demy.

Anna is not quite a sung-through musical in the manner of Demy’s pioneering Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), but it comes close. This is due to composer Serge Gainsbourg’s manner of structuring his songs. Gainsbourg, who also stars as Serge’s friend, was on the verge of becoming a national icon with his fusion of the melodic lyricism of the French chanson tradition with the raw energies of American jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Gainsbourg was a musical equivalent of Godard – behind his truculent public persona beat a bruised, intensely romantic heart. His was a playful aesthetic of intertexts and quotation, a collage of jarring elements now abrasive, now rhapsodic. He was a booklover and intense cinephile – his songs for Anna are full of references to American comics and B-movies – and he collaborated with film stars such as Catherine Deneuve and, most famously, Brigitte Bardot, lead of Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963). A striking feature of Gainsbourg’s songwriting is its construction around the rhythms of speech and thought, full of pauses, hesitations, and reformulations. Gainsbourg co-wrote the script, so this gives much of the dialogue in Anna the quality of recitative in an opera – characters talk to themselves or others, their talk becomes the spoken beginning of a song, before moving into the sung ‘aria’ proper. And what songs – satiric, noisy, yearning, hushed; sometimes, confusingly all at once, as in the heartbreaking duet ‘Ne dis rien’.

Anna was conceived as the first colour transmission on French television – this pretext allowed for a narrative that emphasises the imbrication of media, technology and spectacle, and the way individuals and individuality can get lost therein. Koralnik spent most of his career in television, which is probably why he and this film are not so well known. He specialised in both creative documentaries about ‘serious’ subjects like James Baldwin and Francis Bacon, and technologically innovative musical specials. Anna is an innovative hybrid of both approaches. Koralnik was one of the pioneers of the music video, and Anna is structured like the later Ich bin Vicky Leandros (1970), as a loosely linked series of music videos, the thin narrative an alibi for a string of audio-visual ‘attractions’. It is a film that deserves to be much better known.

Anna (1967 France 87 min)

Prod Co: ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française) Prod: Michèle Arnaud Dir: Pierre Koralnik Scr: Serge Gainsbourg, Jean-Loup Dabadie Phot: Willy Kurant Ed: Françoise Collin Mus: Serge Gainsbourg Prod Des: Isabel Lapierre Cos Des: Lison Bonfils, Anne Frantz

Cast: Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Serge Gainsbourg


  1. Le Petit Soldat was made in 1960, but banned for its treatment of the Algerian War, and not released until 1963.

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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