Friday, May 20, 2016

Film Review: Made in U. S. A.

This review was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on August 16, 2012.

Made in U. S. A., Jean-Luc Godard’s 12th feature, had its North American premiere at the 1967 New York Film Festival. It wasn’t available for viewing again in the United States until 2009. The film is ostensibly an adaptation of the crime novel The Jugger, written by Donald E. Westlake under his pseudonym Richard Stark. But Godard and producer Georges de Beauregard failed to properly secure the rights. Westlake got an injunction that barred U. S. distribution of the film until after his death in 2008. As such, the film was long an object of curiosity among American film scholars, critics, and other cinephiles. Curiosity has now been sated, and it wasn’t worth the wait.

Made in U. S. A. embodies the meaning of the term “Godardian” when used as an insult. It’s self-indulgent, overly cerebral, and aggressively incoherent. Godard lards it up with in-jokes and other trite allusions. His obsession with Hollywood crime movies is very much on display, but only insofar as he can rub the viewer’s nose in the emptiness of their conventions.

The story’s main character is played by Anna Karina. It’s not clear if she’s a detective, a reporter, or a spy. She’s come to “Atlantic-Cité” to investigate the death of an old boyfriend, who may have been a deputy to a Communist local mayor who was killed in a mysterious explosion. The boyfriend allegedly died of heart failure, but the Karina character refuses to believe it. As near as I can tell, her investigation manages to get her on the wrong side of a corrupt political conspiracy that’s somehow tied up with societal revolutionary efforts, but don’t quote me on it. Godard keeps it opaque. As Karina’s character says at one point, “This affair had to remain murky for everyone.”

And oh, how Godard murks it up. There are repeated dialogues that portentously refer to sinister goings-on, but the viewer is never told what those goings-on are. Here’s a typical exchange:

“Now tell me things I don’t know”

“You know it’s a secret.”

“What secret?”

“Come on. Don’t start that again.”

Other dialogues veer into absurdist non sequiturs, such as when a writer the Karina character meets starts talking about how rarely he gets to see his girlfriend--only every day at breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner, and a movie or play in the evening. There are times when Godard doesn’t let the viewer hear the dialogue at all. In one scene, the Karina character questions a woman at gunpoint. But Godard drops all the sound, and one never finds out what was said. Godard also repeatedly introduces narrative red herrings. In a barroom scene, Marianne Faithfull appears as a patron, and apropos of nothing begins singing a song while the Karina character and the film’s two heavies (Laszló Szábó and Jean-Pierre Léaud) cast furtive glances at each other. Why? One never knows. Later on, the Karina and Szábó characters listen to a tape that supposedly tells them something, but it’s nothing but gibberish about colonialism, fascism, and revolution. And on and on. I suppose there's a similarity in some of this to the techniques of Samuel Beckett, but Beckett's work reflects a philosophical worldview. Godard isn't connecting to anything profound in the least; he's just screwing around.

It can be argued that Made in U. S. A. is to the crime/detective genre what Godard’s infinitely superior A Woman Is a Woman is to the Hollywood musical. That is, Godard is rendering the idea of a film in the genre, rather than making a film in the genre per se. The films' initial strategies appear the same: Godard introduces the tropes of the genre, but never follows through with them. With A Woman Is a Woman, this meant tantalizing the viewer with the prospect of singing and dancing while never actually providing any. Made in U. S. A. has hard-boiled dialogue, confrontations at gunpoint, and hints of a deeper conspiracy, but they never really connect to an overarching plot. That last aspect may be the key difference between the two pictures: for all the red herrings, A Woman Is a Woman has a reasonably accessible story. One doesn’t watch it feeling lost most of the time. And most of what was provided in the place of the singing and dancing was energetic and funny. Made in U. S. A., in contrast, just lays there. The only suspense is in wondering what bewildering absurdist nothing is going to happen next.

Another key difference is how the films use Anna Karina. In A Woman Is a Woman, Godard shaped the character around Karina’s personality and talent. He made enchanting use of her free-spirited charm and her astonishingly fluid expressiveness. The Anna Karina of A Woman Is a Woman is a star. In Made in U. S. A., Godard turns her into a stoic blank. The role is obviously a take-off on the taciturn Hammett-Chandler detective cliché, probably best embodied by Humphrey Bogart. But Bogart made those characters work through suggestions of anger, impatience, and disgust. He made you feel the character had earned his world-weary cynicism. The woefully miscast Karina doesn’t make the viewer feel anything; she just sullenly goes through the motions. She changes outfits more often than she changes expressions. The most that can be said for her is that she looks trés chic in those colorful dresses and white trenchcoat.

Made in U. S. A. is such a stultifying mess that it manages to undercut even the good things it has in common with Godard’s better films. Godard and his great cinematographer Raoul Coutard shot the picture in color, and it has the same bold, Pop look as Contempt and Pierrot le fou. But the film’s striking visuals quickly come to feel empty and mannered. Those gorgeously crisp images set a terrific stage for substantial material in the earlier films. Godard and Coutard got the viewer looking, and they made good on the promise to offer something worth looking at. Here, with nothing but pretense that quickly becomes insipid, those visuals feel like a bait-and-switch. Godard turns them into décor, and it’s hard not to feel cheated.

The heart of what goes wrong may be that Godard no longer had any emotional or romantic connection with what he was showing on the screen. The crime genre is a set of conventions he knows, but he’s so apathetic to them that he can’t even give them an effective razzing. There is no longer any rapport with Karina as a performer; it’s no surprise the two never again worked together on a feature-length project. No matter what, Godard cannot seem to imagine this material in terms of any known or felt experience. That may be why so much of the picture is preoccupied with irrelevant in-jokes and word games. If one wants to see what artistic decadence looks like, one doesn't need to go any further than Made in U. S. A.

Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:

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