This is the second time I’ve seen this late-New-Wave-era, late-Godard-with-a-real-narrative-era film. Made in USA is, as with his other films of the period, very fun and also a bit perplexing.
Anna Karina (credited only as AK) plays Paula Nelson, an investigator in the midst of a thriller so confusing and ridiculous that it would make Raymond Chandler blush. Made in USA references, and in some sense pays homage to, the classic American noir, but does so by featuring an almost outlandishly saturated color scheme and with more than enough loose threads and unexplained schematics to go around.
The film features characters named David Goodis, Aldrich and Widmark – three staples, as writer, director and actor respectively, of the classic noir cycle. With streets named after Ben Hecht and Otto Preminger, Godard isn’t shy about his 1942-1958 credo. The odd thing about Made in USA however, is that all of it doesn’t actually add up to a film noir. Sure, there’s the femme fatale (kind of), the investigator, guns, dames, double-crossing, but it’s much more an exercise for Godard to begin his political leanings (pre-Maoist tendencies) than to tell a good yarn.
The whole film is framed extremely flatly. Mundane locations aren’t new to a Godard film (see any of the cafes in his films 1959 – 1967), but here there’s a startling lack of depth from shot to shot. It’s as though he found any semi-colorful wall he could and placed his characters against them. As with 1966’s Masculin Feminin, there’s a lot of play with sound in here. It cuts in and out. Pops up when fun (as Jean-Pierre Leaud makes a machine gun motion, for example, the sound of spraying bullets cuts in abruptly), and disappears at times that feel random. There’s a sequence backstage of a theater where Godard makes a prop cowboy “walk” by – it’s wrangler unseen behind the massive cardboard cutout. What does all of this – flat framing, seemingly arbitrary sound, movie-set fun – add up to?
Well, for one, and with the advantage of hindsight, it seems to be Godard’s goodbye to the narrative, Hollywood-influenced cinema of his early directorial years. One last bit of fun, as it were. Also, it’s Godard’s way of subverting the normal traits of those films that, at first, he seems to be referencing. At critical times in the film, characters will look to camera and explain the rest of the scene, rather than acting it out. Godard: “Screw American film, invisibility, and boring narratives. Here’s a movie that I’ll get you to watch because it’s got some thriller motivations, but what I really want to do is begin a political discourse.” And he does that briefly: with talks of Left versus Right (cruel and brainless versus sentimental) and with Paula Nelson killing everyone involved in the pseudo-murder plot and then taking off, as scot-free woman on the run (look at 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her to get a sense of the director’s interest in the plight of the modern French Woman). The sense of freedom in this film is startling. Sure, staples like Breathless, Band of Outsiders and Contempt have more than their share of aesthetic whimsy, but much of the freedom of those films came from the subject matter, the characters, and the newfound urgency of the New Wave. The freedom in Made in USA comes from Godard’s willingness (and need, as we’ll see with his “end of cinema” film Week End in 1967), to do whatever the hell he wants. Want to have a car honk or an airplane fly by every time the characters attempt to say the name of the murder victim (ie the victim doesn’t matter)? Fine. Want to have a random man in a bar spout off about the philosophies of tangibility? Fine. Want to make the Technicolor-blood issuing from a high-heel-induced head wound more absurd than the car crash to close Contempt? Fine. Indeed, it’s hard to read this film as anything but preparation for Week End and Godard’s foray into more radical, 1970s cinema. It’s pretty interesting to think how it must have been taken when released. I imagine there was a lot of praise of the director’s cinematic knowledge, sense of history, and wacky references and character interplay.
I’ve wondered this question aloud before: how does Godard get away with some of these machinations? Something about his insistence on a uniform style from film-to-film is very controlled. When AK begins the film acting as though she’s part Marlene Dietrich part Lauren Bacall (all AK) we buy it because it’s consistent and pervasive. When Godard blocks Leaud to pace absurdly around a garage (with no real reason), we buy it because that’s just how characters in this world walk and talk. It’s that he pulls those puppet strings so precisely, that even when things are difficult to interpret, seem nonsensical, and/or ill-conceived, all elements still seem to add to something of substance.