Judge Patrick Bromley was born down in a dead man's town.
"You can fool the movie audience, but not me."
I'm the movie audience. I may have been fooled.
Facts of the Case
Godard muse Anna Karina (in her last performance for the director and her ex-husband) stars as Paula, a lady P.I. investigating the possible murder of a former lover. The rest of the film (which is loosely—and I do mean loosely—based on Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep) finds Paula interrogated for the murder and encountering various gangsters and underworld types. And, somewhere in all this, there's time for Marianne Faithfull to sing a Rolling Stones song.
How does one begin to review a film that he doesn't fully comprehend? Jean-Luc Godard's 1966 pop-noir film Made in U.S.A. is a film perhaps better appreciated or even studied than enjoyed; at least, that's the case after a single viewing. I can't deny that I've seen something, but I'm not sure what it is I've seen. This doesn't make Made in U.S.A. a bad movie; it's just that I can't really speak to its significance or meaning after seeing it only once, and time doesn't really permit me to give the movie the intense scrutiny it requires.
The movie (dedicated to Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller) isn't really about its plot at all. That's why the story is so deliberately impenetrable—none of it really matters, except to say that Godard loves crime and noir but couldn't settle for making a simple genre film. Made in U.S.A. has to be something more. In addition to being one of his many love letters to cinema, the movie begins trafficking in the heavy-handed politics that would eventually become the focus of Godard's work: it's all about communism and fascism and capitalism and several other "isms," with characters carrying names like "Richard Nixon" and "Robert MacNamara." Other characters feature movie names like Donald Siegel and Richard Widmark. To what end I'm not sure.
In some ways, Made in U.S.A. reminds me of Shoot the Piano Player, directed by Godard's compatriot Francois Truffaut. Both are decidedly French takes on the American crime film, and both carry the significant stamp of the respective writer/director (who were just as interested in creating the "auteur" theory as they were in defining it with their approach to cinema). I've always leaned more towards Truffaut (if one is forced to make a choice, and luckily one isn't), if only because his films are more in tune with the heart than with the cerebral; Godard's films—particularly his later works (it's a transition that's occurring right in the middle of Made in U.S.A.)—are more focused on creating "cinema" that is political and deconstructionist than with telling a story or stirring emotion. He creates an experience for the viewer, but I'm not sure it's an experience that's easily understood without reflection and examination. This is deliberate, of course; Godard wants you to pull his films apart and understand the layers of meaning. He wants to make a movie that challenges you. At this, he is successful.
Thankfully, even if I'm not sure what all is being said with Made in U.S.A., I can just as easily turn off the sound and simply get lost in Godard's images. The film is widescreen Technicolor pop art at its finest, and the Criterion DVD does a marvelous job of making the brilliant colors pop; their restoration has the movie looking brand spanking new. Frame after frame is filled with the beautiful Anna Karina in a procession of mod outfits, and Godard often shoots the film like he's making a live-action cartoon (at one point when Paula is attacked, he simply cuts away to a "Bang!" graphic like on the old Batman TV show). It's as gorgeous a film, and Criterion's DVD makes it all look pristine. The mono audio track is faithful to its source and does a fine job with the dialogue (you'll need the subtitles, anyway, which are new and improved).
Criterion has seen fit to include a decent amount of bonus material, which is practically necessary for getting any kind of hold on what the movie is actually trying to say. The best of these is a video essay, which plays like footnotes—it points out the many cinematic references and allusions Godard makes throughout the movie and helps one understand a number of the visuals. Interviews with star Karina (from 2002) and Laszlo Sabo (from 2009) are essentially just reflections on the making of the movie, but again its nice to hear thoughts on the film from some of the people involved. A featurette on Godard and his emerging politics during the making of Made in U.S.A. and2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (the two films were shot simultaneously) helps place both films in the context of the filmmakers career. Finally, there's a text essay supplement from critic J. Hoberman that goes a bit further towards understanding the movie. Put all these supplements together (and I mean that; you've really got to watch them all) and you might begin to process what you've seen. Otherwise, prepare to feel alienated by a filmmaker who excels in alienation.
Whether I liked Made in U.S.A. or not—and, at this point, I honestly couldn't say—it's American DVD release is a big deal. For many years, the movie was almost impossible to see; it screened once in the U.S. in the 1960s and never again for another 40 years. It's DVD release has been delayed due to a rights issue with The Jugger, the novel on which the movie is "based." Now, here it is, a seemingly-slight but important and transitional entry into the filmography of one of cinema's most essential directors. At least, I think.
If you're unfamiliar with Godard's work—or with French New Wave cinema in general—I don't suggest getting your feet wet with Made in U.S.A.. But if you're a fan or a student of the movement, the movie should give you plenty to unpack. Just don't say I didn't warn you.
Je ne sais pas.
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