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Jean-Luc Godard's Made in U.S.A. (1966) is the director's 12th film and his seventh and last feature starring Anna Karina, his main muse and, from 1961 to 1965, his wife. (They collaborated one last time, in an episode of a 1967 omnibus film, The Oldest Profession, French title Le plus vieux metier du monde.) Nominally, Made in U.S.A. is about a woman investigating the death of her former lover, and it was to be the last of Godard's films until the 1980s that clung to the remains of anything like narrative structure. Given Godard's Marxist imperatives, there's a lot of political rant (including a tape recording by Karina's dead lover, voiced by Godard), unconvincingly trying to arrive at a sustainable moral position for the French left. It raises esthetic questions, too, examining the very elements of film, wondering what film's destination should be, and firing a few shots at Hollywood's industrialized model of it, most trenchantly expressed in his Contempt (Le Mepris, 1963).
For all his puritanical pronouncements of esthetic theory over the years, Godard early on zeroed in on one of the classic potencies of film - the relationship between a director and an actress with whom he was taken. Karina, born in Denmark in 1930, seems no less precocious and in fact more versatile than Godard (born the same year in Paris to a Franco-Swiss family). She studied dance and painting, worked at both, then worked as a model, came to Paris at 17, was befriended by Pierre Cardin and Coco Chanel (who helped her invent her professional name). Godard first spotted her covered by soapsuds in a tub in a Palmolive commercial, offered her a role in his debut film, Breathless (A bout de soufflé, 1960). She turned him down. Their string of collaborations began the following year with the Algerian War-themed Le Petit soldat (The Little Soldier, 1963).
No mere mannequin, she went on to films by Rivette, Visconti, Cukor and Fassbinder, maintained a successful pop singing career, and in recent years has written four novels. To slip into condescension over her stint as a model is to miss the reason why she almost singlehandedly keeps Made in U.S.A. alive and breathing - she knew how to be photographed. She as much as Godard is the reason they are enshrined in the gallery of films animated by a director's fascination with and in some cases fetishization of his leading lady. Think Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and, before that, D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish, Georg W. Pabst and Louise Brooks, Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. It's a long list, and Karina claims her place on it in mock noir fashion here, blue eyes dancing provocatively under her mane of black bobbed hair, broadcasting at best, mischief, and at worst, trouble.
A lot of the film is given to Karina in close-up, photographed against backdrops of Playskool-bright primary colors: blue, yellow, red. The bodies don't exactly pile up around her, but they do arrive at regular intervals, often colored in bright red stage blood. The film's colors are in fact electric, and their vividness is part of the film's way of grabbing us. The designs, too. When Karina removes her trench coat, she's usually costumed in one clingy jersey dress or another. Whether it's bright squares against a coral background, or various arrangements of stripes, she's a pop tart wearing op art in a film that's pop art, invigorated by Karina's personal appeal.
In the traditional French manner, the film vilifies American politics while adoring American pop culture. Before we see a single frame, we see a dedication to revered New Wave forbearers Sam Fuller and Don Siegel. Godard's films are almost always awash in film references. This one is no exception. Laszlo Szabo's cop dogging Karina's self-appointed private eye is named Richard Widmark. Jean-Pierre Leaud's manic assistant is called Don Siegel. Another cop is called Aldrich (Robert, we assume, not Henry). A writer is named after American pulp noir icon David Goodis. Godard's admiration for things American did not extend to acknowledging, or paying, novelist Donald Westlake, on whose pseudonymous novel, The Jugger, the film was loosely based. This led to a lawsuit by Westlake, and the blocking of the film's U.S. release until 2009. That's why Made in U.S.A. didn't get shown in the U.S.A except for a few festival showings.
Just to give the film's nomenclature a political twist, two other cops in it are named Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon. But merely to declare oneself anti-fascist, as Godard and this film do, isn't enough. It's no substitute for a real program, and the lack of a political program in this film that lacks an esthetic program opened the door for the ever more desperate spectacle of Godard in the '70s coming on as a French bourgeois Maoist. In retrospect, the 1960s and '70s were bad decades for French intellectuals of the left. Coming off the shame and guilt of France's downfall in Algeria and Morocco, French leftists had their noses rubbed in the Soviet reassertion of power in Eastern Europe and the ongoing crushing of idealism from that quarter. Then there was Vietnam. It must have been irresistible to point a collective finger at the U.S., conveniently overlooking the fact that the U.S. went into Vietnam to shore up crumbling French colonialism there. To do so proved a made-to-order mechanism to transfer and purge French guilt.
From the moral and tactical corners into which French Communists had painted themselves, Godard even has one character say that anti-Americanism is the only position that would allow French leftists to remain respectable, given that the opposite would mean endorsing U.S. policies in Vietnam. Made in U.S.A., content-wise, is a thing of exhausted orthodoxy, one that was never on firm ground to start with. Godard would have been better to stick with his indictment of the commodification of film by America. There's where his passion seems to be. There's one delicious scene in a warehouse filled with lurid posters of Hollywood films. At one point, Leaud's cop describes a political film as a Walt Disney film with blood.
By design, the blood in this one is stage blood, and it's more of a Disney film, or maybe Looney Toons, than searchingly political. Still, its pieties and incoherence can't do it in. Godard's deft touch and editing of the fragments he declines to knit into a more coherent whole make Made in U.S.A. fizzier than it deserves to be. The stress that must have been present between Godard and Karina, given the disintegration of their off-screen relationship, must have made for an additional quota of tension. In some way, though, it energizes the film and is as much a source of its pulse as Karina's presence and image. When it isn't gassing on about political realities you feel Godard doesn't really grasp, Made in U.S.A is about as playful as the essentially dour Godard gets.
Producer: Georges de Beauregard
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard; Richard Stark (based on the novel The Jugger)
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Film Editing: Franoise Collin, Agns Guillemot
Cast: Anna Karina (Paula Nelson), Laszlo Szabo (Richard Widmark), Jean-Pierre Leaud (Donald Siegel), Marianne Faithfull (as herself), Yves Afonso (David Goodis).
by Jay Carr