Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. is not the celluloid Holy Grail, but it’s close enough. Four decades after a single screening at the 1967 New York Film Festival, the least-seen, most quintessential movie of Godard’s great period gets an American distributor and even a limited run.
Made in U.S.A. is, at least nominally, a political noir in the tradition of Godard’s second film, Le Petit Soldat (1961), although, like Band of Outsiders (1964), it’s a thriller about people acting as if they’re living in a movie. “You can fool the movie 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 — more than a few named for Godard’s pet movie personalities — speak, it’s often to speculate on the nature of language or to note the time passing.
The movie references and cartoon violence suggest the meta comic strip that is Alphaville (1965), even as the wide-screen Pop Art look and percussive sound editing evoke that of Two or Three Things I Know About Her — which was actually made simultaneously with Made in U.S.A. during the summer of 1966, one shot in the morning and the other after lunch. And 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 soon-to-be ex-wife — here cast as a private investigator, wrapped in a trench coat and packing a gat. Godard told an interviewer that he had been inspired to remake Howard Hawks’ 1946 version of The Big Sleep, revived that summer in Paris, with Karina in the Bogart role.
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As The Big Sleep has a notoriously impenetrable plot (even Hawks could not explain one of its numerous murders), so Made in U.S.A. represents Godard’s most sustained derangement of narrative convention. The key sequences are regularly pulverized just at the point of resolution, and crucial passages of dialogue are purposefully obscured by street noise as, alternately seductive and indifferent, Karina’s detective goes in search of a lover who is apparently lost, perhaps to assassination, in a labyrinthine, never fully explained international political intrigue.
Made in U.S.A. opens with the protagonist holed up in a cheap hotel room, musing about her situation, while a pair of tough guys (nouvelle vague regulars László Szabó and Jean-Pierre Léaud) loiter beneath her window. Hanging out is the operative principle. Made in U.S.A. has aspects of the time-killing vaudeville that characterized the great Warhol movies of the mid-’60s. (At one point, Marianne Faithfull turns up in a café, idly warbling “As Tears Go By” a cappella.) But mainly, the camera contemplates Karina, pondering her 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 close to a solo.
Plot kicks into gear when Karina “kills” the annoying, dwarfish informer, M. 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, Karina 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 McNamara and Nixon (and played by a pair of young film critics) turn up as gunsels, the reel-to-reel tape recorders that periodically appear in close-up to play messages left by Karina’s dead lover switch to communist rants. In 1966, however, Godard’s politics were still largely cultural and hardly consistent.
Made in U.S.A. is anticapitalist and anticonsumerist, decrying miniskirts and rock & roll as mind control, but it’s also more devoted to the vulgar modernism of mid-20th-century pop culture than any movie Godard made before or would make after. “I think advertising is a form of fascism,” Karina’s character 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.