Review: Made in U.S.A.
Lo and behold, after years of successfully refurbishing Godardian staples like Band of Outsiders and Le Meprís, arthouse distributor Rialto Pictures will finally unveil an eye-popping new CinemaScope print of Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. at New York’s Film Forum tomorrow, followed by screenings in L.A. and Boston. What makes this so special? Though it debuted here 40 years ago at the 1967 New York Film Festival, Made in U.S.A., very loosely based on a Donald E. Westlake crime novel, has never had a proper theatrical release on these shores (Godard never paid for the rights to the book) and is one of the director’s least-seen movies from his 1960s heyday.
Made on a cheapie budget at the behest of producer Georges de Beuaregard (La Religieuse), who tapped Godard to help him out of a financial sinkhole, Made in U.S.A. is a cheeky pastiche of The Big Sleep, American kitsch, and anti-capitalist rhetoric. The plot, as with so many Godard films of the period, is absurdly convoluted (Anna Karina’s Paula Nelson hunts for the killers of her lover Politzer, a Marxist philosopher, after shooting a dwarflike agent, M. Typhus, in her hotel room). The narrative action is routinely disrupted by jarring sounds (i.e. the recurring roar of a jet engine often obscures dialogue), disorienting cuts and visual interludes, and stentorian voiceovers. But “story” and lockstep sense-making are beside the point, and here, importantly, Godard’s exuberantly playful formal experimentation is infused with a more strident political tone.
Shot in Paris over the course of a month, and made synchronously with Two or Three Things I Know About Her, to which he devoted his mornings, Made in U.S.A. marks the beginning of Godard’s shift from cinema-besotted New Wave grandee to self-fashioned cultural revolutionary (and Maoist mouthpiece). The film’s deliriously fawning closeups of Karina, whose dolled-up face and ultra-mod getups are worthy of Fashion Week ’66, are an act of intensely concentrated worship. Godard fell in love over and over again, not just with actress-collaborators like Karina, Marina Vlady, and Anne Wiazemsky, but with writers, poets, thinkers, American pop culture, and ultimately, radical politics. Made in U.S.A. points in that direction with its conspiratorial shadow operatives (Jean-Pierre Léaud and László Szabó), Godard’s oracular tape-machine pronouncements (attributed to Politzer’s unseen ghost), and the appearance of two hoods named Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara. Then there are the fatuous political declarations to grapple with.
Some French critics likened the film’s collagist effects to a high-modernist masterwork by Picasso or Joyce, but Made in U.S.A. is not the equal of Pierrot le fou, nor is it as sardonically cutting or divisive as Week-end, the film he made a year later. Even Bernardo Bertolucci seemed to think, oddly enough, that Made in U.S.A. was too conformist. (A polemical issue, to be sure.) Young leftists didn’t like the film, either. Maybe they didn’t appreciate being called “sentimental,” which is what Philippe Labro, the journalist who gives Karina a ride at the end of the film, opines to her in a speech about contemporary politics. Yet the film has a spry energy that differentiates it from Godard’s prior accomplishments and later provocations. Quite apart from the film’s dazzling montage, there are flashes of broad humor, too, like Léaud’s death stumble and final yelp (“Mommy!”), and a flurry of deadpan Dadaisms, such as when Marianne Faithfull suddenly pops up to deliver an a capella rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By” in a bar room. Made in U.S.A. may have surfaced too late for canonical indemnity, but this quintessentially Godardian film has the freshness and intellectual vitality we have always treasured in his most celebrated body of work.