For American audiences, Made in U.S.A is gaping hole in the filmography of director Jean-Luc Godard. With the exception of a screening at the 1967 New York Film Festival, Made in U.S.A has never had an official US release.
Godard based the 1966 film on the novel The Jugger by Richard Stark, nom de guerre of mystery writer Donald Westlake. The film and the book both concern themselves with the main character searching for someone and finding out they’re dead. But that’s where the similarities end. In Westlake’s book, the protagonist is a man; in Made in U.S.A, it’s a woman. In the book, the man is a crook named Parker looking for a stool pigeon; in the movie, the woman is a journalist named Paula looking for a former lover. In the book, Westlake returned to an often-used character (Parker); Godard called on an often-used ex-wife (Anna Karina). The book is a hard-boiled crime pulp; the movie is a politically-infused Pop critique of the Americanization of France.
The two creations would seem different enough, at least aesthetically, to stand together, separately. But Godard never paid for the rights to the book, and Westlake blocked American distribution of the film.
Near the end of his life, though, Westlake, who died of a heart attack at the age of 75 on New Year’s Eve 2008, decided to let up on Made in U.S.A. and gave his blessing for its release. Film Forum in New York presented the film in a two-week run in early January 2009, and from there it will continue in smaller theaters around the country.
This long overdue American debut of Made in the U.S.A. is a cinematic event, akin to the 2006 US premiere of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film Army of Shadows. These kinds of delayed American releases provide an experience in cinema from another era. We’re getting films first-run that were withheld for decades, available only as bootlegs or references in film histories and biographies.
But while this geek-out was met with an extraordinary and confidently made film in Army of Shadows, there is a far more uneven and transitional film to be found in Made in U.S.A.
Godard shot Made in U.S.A. concurrently with Two or Three Things I know About Her. At the time, he was emerging from his visionary moment -- a span of six years that began with Breathless in 1960, continued through A Woman is a Woman, Contempt, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, and Pierrot le fou, and culminated with Masculine-Feminine in 1966 -- and entering his deconstructionist period. In this second life of his career, cinema became politicized and Godard played even faster and looser with film form than he had in the early 1960s. He reduced the medium down to its foundational elements -- sound and image -- and weaponized them by assaulting the audience with a barrage of almost disparate soundtracks, dialogue, and series of images with little regard to narrative. So complete was Godard in his destruction of cinematic norms that he declared at the end of his 1967 film Weekend: “End of Cinema.”
Made in U.S.A. is the beginning of that end, and watching it is to witness the pangs of Godard’s transformation from populist filmmaker to solitary artist.
At the start of the film, a title card dedicates it to “Sam and Nick, who educated me in the use of sound and image.” (That would be Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray.) But then over the 81-minute runtime of the film, Godard breaks every rule when it comes to sound and image. Sounds repeat for no reason. Sound effects obscure the full name of the man Paula is looking for. The image skips and repeats numerous times, as if it were a turntable needle caught in a scratch. Godard withholds images of people speaking so that he can present narratively unmotivated close-ups of Karina. And in a nod to Roy Lichtenstein, frames of comic books with onomatopoeia sound effects overtake moving images of the things causing the sounds.
All the while, Godard sets out to follow a rather conventional hard-boiled detective narrative done up in mod colors. The storytelling is done in a fairly straightforward way -- Made in U.S.A. begins with Paula looking for her lover in a backwater town called Atlantic City and ends with her returning to the big city of Paris after she’s found her answers. Some characters get double-crossed, others get killed, and in the end Paula is no better off than when she started.
With Made in U.S.A., Godard tries to look forward as a director while wistfully looking backward. The cinematic deconstruction that permeates Made in U.S.A. portents his work that would follow, while his choice of subject matter (the American detective story) recalls Breathless and Band of Outsiders. He is also creating a sense of finality to his relationship with Karina while embracing his inextinguishable flame for her. This was their last collaboration, but he obsessively frames her in close-ups as if knowing that through the lens of the camera is the only way they will ever be so close again.
This mish-mash of styles and approaches and obsessions presents an interesting portrait of a director remaking himself. But Made in U.S.A. is a sloppy film. Godard never commits to one way of doing things, leading to weird tonal changes, stilted characters, and unclear motivations. And unlike his later films where we might be simultaneously perplexed and engaged, we’re shuttled between the two in Made in U.S.A.: engaged one minute, baffled the next. The result is a work that tries interesting things with form but that is narratively unmemorable.
In an interview given while making Made in U.S.A., Godard said, “I started off intending to make a simple film, and for the first time I tried to tell a story. But it isn’t my way of doing things.” This is obvious when watching the film -- Godard is an unsure filmmaker from start to finish.
Made in U.S.A. is lacking as a narrative experience, but from a connoisseur point of view it’s vital. It’s cinema withheld from America for 40-plus years. But more importantly it’s a portrait of an artist at a creative crossroads. It provides a context for Godard’s later work while revealing some of his opinions on his earlier films.
Godard's lost-to-Americans film has problems -- a lot of them, in fact -- but all serious film lovers owe it to themselves to seek it out.
An edited version of this review was published at EmanuelLevy.com.