Made in U.S.A.

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel by Donald E. Westlake)
Stars: Anna Karina (Paula Nelson), László Szabó (Richard Widmark), Jean-Pierre Léaud (Donald Siegel), Marianne Faithfull (Marianne Faithfull), Yves Afonso (David Goodis)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1966
Country: France
Made in U.S.A. Criterion Collection DVD
Made in U.S.A.It doesn’t get much more ironic than the fact that Made in U.S.A. was one of only a few of Jean-Luc Godard’s early films not to be given some kind of theatrical distribution in the United States. Although not actually made in the U.S. (it was shot in France), the film takes as its primary subject the Americanization (or, as Godard would put it, the “coca-colonization”) of Europe, but that is not why the film never made it over here. Rather, it is because of legal wrangling between producer Georges de Beauregard and American author Donald Westlake, on whose novel the film is ostensibly based. As a result, Made in U.S.A. was for decades a kind of “lost” Godard film if you lived west of the Atlantic, and with the exception of a lone screening at the 1967 New York Film Festival, it wasn’t until early 2009 that it had a theatrical run in the U.S.

The irony is certainly thick, and it gives Made in U.S.A. an added veneer of interest and intrigue even if it isn’t one of Godard’s best films. Despite the fact that his films of this era were made with a deliberately casual tone ripe with anti-Hollywood-gloss nonchalance, each playing like a home-movie homage to one of Godard’s favorite genres, Made in U.S.A. feels particularly tossed off, and for good reason. It was not a film that Godard intended to make; rather, de Beauregard approached him while he was already in production on 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) with a huge favor to ask. De Beauregard had recently produced Jacques Rivette’s La religieuse (1966), which had been banned by the government censor and therefore put him in dire economic straits. Having worked with Godard before on five of his earlier films, de Beauregard knew he was capable of working extremely fast and asked him to make a quick movie that he could distribute in place of La religieuse. The result was Made in U.S.A., which Godard shot simultaneously with 2 or 3 Things, the latter in the mornings and the former in the afternoons.

A further irony of Made in U.S.A. is that Godard initially intended to make a relatively conventional thriller that actually told a cohesive story loosely based on Westlake’s novel The Jugger (apparently so loosely that neither Godard nor de Beauregard felt the need to purchase the rights to the novel, hence its commercial ban in the U.S. for more than four decades). Despite these intentions, the film quickly devolves into narrative confusion and abstraction.

Godard cast his muse and ex-wife Anna Karina (in the last of their eight collaborations), as a leftist writer and amateur sleuth named Paula Nelson who leaves Paris for a fictional French burg called Atlantic-Cité to (possibly) investigate the (possible) death of her former colleague and lover, Richard P. That is about as far as the plot goes, as once Paula is in Atlantic-Cité, Godard allows any sense of narrative intrigue to slowly crumble beneath the weight of eccentric and often inexplicable supporting characters, most of whom bear the names of American filmmakers and movie stars associated with hard-boiled genres (including László Szabó’s Richard Widmark and Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Donald Siegel). Part of Godard’s inspiration was Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), whose mystery plot is infamously complicated and ultimately unsolvable, and in typical Godardian fashion he reworks it to the nth degree, not just gender-recasting the Bogart role with Karina (who in voice-over says she feels like Bogart in a Disney film), but taking the idea of an inscrutable plot and stringing it out to its logical ends.

Part of this is politically motivated, as Godard was moving toward his Marxist phase and wanted to tie the film to the scandale publique of the day, the so-called “Ben Barka Affair” in which a leftist Moroccan political figure “disappeared” in Paris in 1965. Paula’s possibly dead lover Richard P. (we never hear the last name because it is always obscured by some random noise or inexplicable silence) is a stand-in for Georges Figon, who apparently witnessed Barka’s abduction and whose subsequent murder was made to look like a suicide. Godard somehow thought to tie that in to a film in which the central mystery constantly gives way to stabs at anti-capitalist grandstanding that is never very effective because the film itself is such an opulent visual ode to physical and material beauty. While in theory it all sounds very interesting and intriguing and, well, Godardian, the whole never really comes together (that would happen the next year, with Godard’s political masterpiece Weekend).

Godard dedicated the film to his cinematic muses Nick (Nicholas Ray) and Samuel (Sam Fuller), who “raised me to respect image and sound,” which is primarily what Made in U.S.A. has going for it. While the story is a mess and the characters quickly reveal themselves as simple political types, Godard and his frequent cinematographer Raoul Coutard wrap them in sumptuous color imagery that pops off the screen like a Warhol lithograph. Karina cruises from scene to scene in various brightly colored ensembles that work in tandem with a succession of garish, primary-color backgrounds, thus distracting your eyes enough to keep you from realizing that none of it really coheres.

Made in U.S.A. Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • Interviews with stars Anna Karina and Lászlo Szábó
  • “On the Cusp” Video piece on the personal and the political in Made in U.S.A and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, featuring Godard biographers Richard Brody and Colin MacCabe
  • A visual essay cataloguing the multiple references in the film
  • Original and rerelease theatrical trailers
  • Essay by film critic J. Hoberman
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 21, 2009

    Whatever disagreement there may be about the political and narrative issues in Made in U.S.A., there is no doubt that it is a visually gorgeous film, and the sumptuous widescreen transfer on Criterion’s DVD, which was made from the original 35mm camera negative, treats it very well. The image pops off the screen with excellent detail and the kind of rich, deeply saturated primary colors that make your eyes dance. Three forms of digital restoration--the MTI Digital Restoration System, Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, and Digital Vision’s DVNR system--have ensured an image that is free of defects, but still maintains an effectively film-like presentation. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical print, sounds very clean.
    While there is no audio commentary on the film there is an excellent 26-minute featurette titled “On the Cusp” that features interviews with Richard Brody (author of Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard) and Colin MacCabe (author of Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy) discussing the production and autobiographical and political elements of both Made in U.S.A and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. To help the viewer understand the film’s rich tapestry of allusions, there is also a 17-minute visual essay that explores its deep well of literary, cultural, historical, and artistic references. The disc also includes a 2002 video interview with actress Anna Karina (10 min.) about her life and work with Godard and a new video interview with actor Lászlo Szábó (6 min.). The disc is rounded out with both the original and rerelease theatrical trailers, and the insert book includes a new essay by film critic J. Hoberman.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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