Director: Jean-Luc Godard Writers: Jean-Luc Godard (screenplay), Donald E. Westlake (novel, uncredited) Actors: Anna Karina, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Laszlo Szabo, Marianne Faithfull Rating: NR Runtime: 90 min
Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 film Made in U.S.A has experienced a turbulent history within the United States. The film is loosely based on Donald E. Westlake’s novel The Jugger, yet because Godard did not pay for any adaptation rights, the film was banned from screening until after the author’s death in 2008. Critics who have only recently seen the film praise it nonetheless, and this fact is a testament to the power of this film that has withstood the test of time and censorship.
Paula Nelson (Anna Karina) is a leftist writer who travels throughout France – masquerading as Atlantic City – investigating the death of her former colleague and lover Richard P and leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. Like many of his greatest films, Made in U.S.A. stars Godard’s wife and muse Anna Karina, although the two were to divorce shortly after its filming was completed, and this work marks their final collaboration. The ever-striking Karina plays a mysterious woman whose identity is not immediately revealed to the audience, and we are left guessing as to whom she really is and what her motives actually are: she could be a detective, or she could be a spy. Godard’s camera lingers often on Karina’s face, which is framed by her particular hair and makeup design. This film is clearly about her, and Karina rises to this challenge, grabbing onto a viewer’s attention from the opening scene and keeping one intrigued and entranced. The props are simple and the sets are stripped down, leaving all focus on the characters and their heavy dialogue, which is delivered mainly by Paula and is often exasperatingly obscured by noises at its crucial moment.
This film is notable in particular for its striking colour palette. Only two years earlier, Godard shot Band of Outsiders in arresting black and white, but this film requires its bright colour in order to present its subversive and slightly satirical pop-art version of Hollywood crime cinema; Godard must use and exaggerate the techniques of the genre in order to ridicule them. Here is a decidedly French New Wave thriller that plays with the conventions of the American Film Noir, turning expectations on their heads as the two clashing styles are inextricably intermixed. Godard’s anti-consumerist views are on full display here; at one point, speaking for the director, Paula goes so far as to claim that “advertising is a form of fascism.” Unlike his aforementioned work, Made in U.S.A. has no interest in conventional narrative techniques, and one looking for a strong plot or simple storyline should seek solace elsewhere.
With Made in U.S.A., Godard was also able to integrate some of his political views such as anti-capitalism, a technique that quickly became characteristic not only of his work but of the French New Wave movement of which he was an influential part. Godard offers commentary on leftist politics and advertising, and as these views are indivisibly tied up within his film, the work does not appear to preach or instruct, but simply to inform. Made in U.S.A. may be a minimalist work in its style, but its topics are heavy and it has a lot to say. Challenging yet highly influential, this film will definitely leave one thinking about more than simply what it was about.