French Braid

Ed Halter on Godard's Made in USA

Jean-Luc Godard, Made in USA, 1966, still from a color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes. Paula Nelson (Anna Karina).

“ONE GOES TO the latest Godard prepared to see something both achieved and chaotic, ‘work in progress’ which resists easy admiration,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1968. Uneasy chaos certainly typifies Made in USA, a 1966 feature by the director that—ironically enough for its titular claim—has heretofore been rarely screened stateside. Made as a side project to Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), in response to his producer’s need for a quick cash influx, Made in USA doesn’t share its sister film’s essay structure, but rather continues Godard’s ongoing disintegration of cinematic narrative, now venturing far beyond the genre-bending of Alphaville (1965) or Band of Outsiders (1964).

Though ostensibly based on a pulp crime novel by the late Donald Westlake (who successfully sued to halt the distribution of the film in the US), Made in USA offers a constellation of actors who appear only loosely in character. The protagonists dart about a French provincial town—playing the part of “Atlantic City”in name only—zigzagging through a set of plot vectors that Godard has idiosyncratically remapped onto the real-world murder of left-wing Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka. Densely referential, the film is thoroughly spiked with allusions to contemporary politics, old Hollywood, literature, and philosophy. Paula Nelson (played by Anna Karina, the director’s then-recent ex-wife), clad in a Bogart-style trench coat, seeks traces of her perhaps-dead boyfriend Richard P . . . ; when spoken, his name is always obscured by jet noise, telephone bells, or other interference, and in fact he later appears only as an audio tape, loudly reciting leftist speeches. En route, she encounters foppish gangsters with unlikely names: “Richard Nixon,” “Donald Siegel,” “Robert McNamara,” and the Japanese folk chanteuse “Doris Mizoguchi.” (The inclusion of Marianne Faithful, however, is the real deal: She croons an a cappella version of the Stones’ “As Tears Go By.”)

While the plot twists into Gordian knots, Raoul Coutard’s wide-screen cinematography never skimps on visual pleasures. From its red, white, and blue titles (which conveniently reference the national hues of both France and the States) onward, the unabashedly Pop-era Made in USA presents an unsettlingly bright film noir en couleur—or as one character puts it, “Walt Disney with blood.” Dressed in her mod ensemble, Paula kills a man with her high-heeled shoe, leaving only a tasteful dot of lush red. Later, she searches for clues in a movie-marquee poster factory, wandering among oversize paintings of glowing families and glowering Nazis. The total effect is of a France invaded by Yankee pop culture and cold-war intrigue—itself a “work in progress”—mutated into a Franco-American hybrid, both vibrant and violent, but unsure of its destiny.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in USA has its official US premiere at Film Forum in New York, January 9–22. For more details, click here.