Male directors have often diminished the highly creative women who inspired them. Will the rise of female film-makers revolutionise the role of ‘muse’?
Amid tributes to Anna Karina, who died earlier this month, the word “muse” recurred. As in “the muse of Jean-Luc Godard” or “Karina served as a cinematic muse to Godard”. And in nearly every homage and obituary, you could sense the writer making a valiant effort to acknowledge that Karina was more than just a passive repository of a male auteur’s creativity: that she appeared in films by other renowned directors, starred in a TV musical (Anna) with songs by Serge Gainsbourg, made albums, did theatre, wrote and directed two films, and wrote four novels.
But it is Godard’s attempts to define and contain Karina’s allure that gives his early films much of their appeal. Time and again, the performer transcends her material, giving it that extra je ne sais quoi even when the writing leaves something to be desired. (Godard seems to have trouble conceiving that the female experience revolves around anything other than prostitution, duplicity, or wanting babies.) It is symptomatic that during the Madison dance scene in Bande à Part (1964), when the male narrator – Godard himself – voices Odile’s inner thoughts, he informs us she is thinking about her breasts. (According to male authors, we think about our breasts all the time, as satirised by the much-quoted meme: “She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.”)