Made in 1966 (so quickly that it could almost be considered an improvisation), Jean-Luc Godard’s twelfth feature, Made in U.S.A, is arguably the most quintessentially “Godardian” of the filmmaker’s great Breathless to Weekend period (1960–67). For those of us in the United States, however, it is also the least familiar.
Due to producer Georges de Beauregard’s insolvency following the government censorship of his previous production, Jacques Rivette’s The Nun, and complications regarding the literary rights for Godard’s project (it is vaguely adapted from American mystery writer Donald E. Westlake’s pseudonymous novel The Jugger), Made in U.S.A did not get a U.S. distributor, or even a limited theatrical run, until four decades after its American premiere, a single screening at the legendary 1967 New York Film Festival, which opened with The Battle of Algiers and closed with Far from Vietnam.
Writing a more sympathetic notice than his colleague Howard Thompson gave Godard’s Les carabiniers (1963), which was shown on the same evening, New York Times reviewer Richard Shepard found Made in U.S.A “an often bewildering potpourri of film narration, imagery, and message . . . better seen twice, if at all.” Albeit noting Made in U.S.A’s “pop art bloodstains,” Shepard left it for others to connect the season’s cinematic scandal, Hollywood’s own New Wave gangster flick, Bonnie and Clyde, and what would be the last of Godard’s reconfigured genre films.
Dedicated to Nick (Ray) and Samuel (Fuller), “who raised me to respect image and sound,” Made in U.S.A is, at least nominally, a political noir in the tradition of Godard’s second film, Le petit soldat (1960). At the same time, it resembles Band of Outsiders (1964) in being a thriller about people who are acting as if they’re living in a movie. “You can fool the audience, but not me,” the star, Anna Karina, tells someone. Made in U.S.A is self-reflexive as well as self-conscious: when characters speak, it’s often to speculate on the nature of language or note the time passing.
Neon signs and “news ribbons” abound. So do comic strips and film stills. Many of the principals, like Donald Siegel and Doris Mizoguchi, are named for Godard’s pet movie personalities, and references to American movie characters are ubiquitous (“Miss Ruby Gentry, please report to the oxygenation room”), including three from three different films directed by Otto Preminger (who also has a street named for him in the movie’s imaginary “Atlantic City”). Made in U.S.A’s cinephilic jokes and cartoon violence suggest the meta pulp fiction that is Alphaville (1965), even as the widescreen, hyperpop look and percussive sound design (honking traffic, barking dogs, shards of Schumann, stretches of silence) evoke 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her—part of which was shot simultaneously with Made in U.S.A, during the summer of 1966. (Godard toyed with the idea of a Faulknerian double bill, projecting alternate reels of the two movies, as the novelist switched between two stories in The Wild Palms.)
Even more than the half dozen previous films in which Godard directed Karina, Made in U.S.A is a portrait of the filmmaker’s ex-wife—here, in her final performance for him, cast as Paula Nelson, a private investigator wrapped in a trench coat and packing a gat. In an article published in Le nouvel observateur soon after Made in U.S.A was completed, Godard explained that he had been inspired to remake Howard Hawks’s 1946 version of The Big Sleep, revived that summer in Paris, with Karina in the Bogart role. As The Big Sleep has a notoriously impenetrable plot (by Faulkner, no less), one of whose numerous murders not even Hawks could explain, so Made in U.S.A represents Godard’s most sustained derangement of narrative convention.
Richard Roud, whose description of the movie in his 1967 Cinema One monograph was the closest many of Godard’s American fans would ever get to Made in U.S.A, maintained that he only understood the logic of certain sequences after he had the opportunity to analyze them on a Moviola editing console. Key scenes are regularly pulverized just at the point of resolution; crucial passages of dialogue are purposefully obscured by street noise or two loud chords taken from a Beethoven symphony, as, alternately seductive and indifferent, Paula goes in search of a lover who is apparently lost, perhaps to assassination, in a labyrinthine, never fully explained international political intrigue.
Actually, Godard had a lot more than The Big Sleep on his mind. In the same Nouvel observateur article, he explained that Made in U.S.A fused three imperatives: “I wanted to oblige a friend [Beauregard], to tackle the Americanization of French life, and to do something with the Ben Barka affair.” The conspiratorial cause célèbre of midsixties France, the last involved the disappearance of Mehdi Ben Barka, Morocco’s most prominent leftist, a political exile in France and a third-world figure then comparable to Malcolm X or Che Guevara—that is, a third-world martyr. Ben Barka was abducted by French police operatives acting in concert with the Moroccan government, which apparently had him tortured to death on French territory.
That, as recounted in Richard Brody’s Godard biography, Ben Barka vanished en route to a meeting with filmmaker Georges Franju, with whom he was planning to make a documentary, made the event even more vivid for Godard. So did the identity of the chief witness in the affair: gangster and directorial wannabe Georges Figon, the documentary’s supposed producer, who was another casualty of the case, perhaps “suicide” by the French authorities. In Le nouvel observateur, Godard explained that, making Made in U.S.A, he “imagined that Figon had not died, that he had taken refuge in the provinces, that he had written to his girlfriend to join him. She goes to the address where they had planned to meet, but when she gets there, she finds that he is dead.”
Thus the movie opens with Paula holed up in a cheap hotel room in the nondescript Paris suburb that stands in for Atlantic City, musing about her situation while a pair of tough guys (nouvelle vague regulars László Szabó and Jean-Pierre Léaud) loiter ominously beneath her window. “Hanging out” is one of the movie’s operative principles. Made in U.S.A has aspects of the time-killing vaudeville that characterized the great Warhol movies of the midsixties. (At one point, Marianne Faithfull—a mod icon to rival Karina—turns up in a neighborhood café, idly warbling “As Tears Go By” a cappella.) But mainly, Raoul Coutard’s camera contemplates the star, a sphinx. Made in U.S.A is all about pondering Karina’s private smiles, her Cleopatra mane, her changing outfits, and her uncanny power to transform any given shot into a fashion spread. Given that we hear her voice-over throughout, it’s very close to a solo.
Plot, such as it is, kicks into gear when Paula “kills” the annoying, dwarfish informer Mr. Typhus, who appears in her hotel room: “Now fiction overtakes reality,” she murmurs. Fiction is as convoluted and abstractly violent here as in The Big Sleep. Like her model, Philip Marlowe, Paula discovers a series of bodies in the course of her quest; she also leaves a trail of others in her wake, including one whom she simply shoots point-blank. Soon after, she delivers the movie’s most famous line: “We were in a political movie . . . Walt Disney with blood.” Around the time that characters named Nixon and McNamara turn up as gunsels (played by the young film critics Jean-Pierre Biesse and Sylvain Godet), the reel-to-reel tape recorders that have been periodically appearing in close-up to play garbled messages left by Paula’s dead lover switch to Communist rants.
In 1966, Godard’s politics were still largely cultural and hardly consistent. Made in U.S.A is anticapitalist and anticonsumerist, decrying miniskirts and rock and roll as forms of fascist mind control, yet more devoted to the vulgar modernism of mid-twentieth-century pop culture than any movie Godard made before or would make after. “I think advertising is a form of fascism,” Paula asserts, speaking for the director. It’s a valid complaint and a poignant one, given that Made in U.S.A is a constant advertisement for itself. An epilogue that, according to Brody, Godard filmed a month after the initial shoot ended has a completely different feel. Paula, who is presumably on the lam, stands by the side of a superhighway and then hops into a car driven by the radio journalist Philippe Labro (playing himself). Mounted on the automobile hood, the camera frames the couple driving hopefully into the future, engaged in an open-ended discussion on, as used to be said, what is to be done. Beethoven fills the track. “We have years of struggle ahead of us,” Paula calmly declares.
Gilles Jacob, who published a long piece on Made in U.S.A in early 1967 (several months before Godard began filming La Chinoise), considered the movie not only a formal triumph—Godard “has managed to disincarnate the object” so as “to attain the heights of an explosive and striking lyricism”—but also the filmmaker’s first “consciously made political film.”
Until Made in U.S.A, Godard was a fascist for some, a Communist for others (but didn’t people say the same thing about Citizen Kane?); and for still others, he simply stood outside the fight . . . [Made in U.S.A is] a political act that is just as serious as putting a ballot in the ballot box, a critical analysis of our society, a warning speech in which, this time, the filmmaker has become so unequivocally involved that he felt he had to record it himself.
. . . After this rather spectacular veering toward the left, I would not be surprised to see Godard turning toward Mao in one of his upcoming films. But it is also with forms that Godard makes revolution.
Jacob was right on both counts. In fact, as Made in U.S.A demonstrates, it was the exhaustion of radical form that led Godard toward radical practice.
J. Hoberman recently marked his thirtieth year as a film critic for the Village Voice. His film writing has been anthologized in Vulgar Modernism and The Magic Hour, and included in the Library of America’s American Movie Critics.