So much of Jean-Luc Godard’s popularity as a filmmaker rests on the impenetrability of his personal aesthetic that it’s almost pointless to bother reviewing the individual films. The value of Godard’s work is in its totality—the oeuvre—and what that body of work says about the man; though few would argue that the time required to make such an assessment is better spent counting sheep or sifting individual grains of sand. Uneven and maddening as they can be, Godard’s films continue to resonate with a certain fringe who rightfully view the Swiss-born New Wave icon as the last true cinematic avant-gardist, a survivor whose willingness, even determination to use film as a weapon whenever and wherever possible represents a symbolic “last stand” against the inevitable conquest of Hollywood commercialism.
Made In U.S.A.
not only fits this mold but quite nearly defines it, which may explain why the 1966 film is just now, 43 years later, receiving what is technically its first U.S. theatrical release (though the official word on the inexplicable delay is “legal troubles”). That fact alone will make it something of a noteworthy curiosity, particularly worthy of discussion in the month of January (historically recognized for its vapid releases), though in the end only Godard loyalists and obsessive semioticians will find any lasting value therein.
The very loose (and unlicensed) adaptation of Donald Westlake’s novel The Jugger reportedly had something of a sketchy origin, a quasi-noir that began as an intended remake of The Big Sleep only to end up a schizophrenic collage of Godard’s unbridled stream of consciousness. Starring the director’s then-wife, Anna Karina, in their last film together, Made In U.S.A. centers on a femme fatale named Paula Nelson, a renegade and political radical whose quest to uncover the truth behind the reported death of her former lover entangles her in a convoluted web of intrigue involving police, gangsters, endless existential blathering, more gangsters, angry communist radio speeches, more gangsters, an odd cameo by Marianne Faithfull and the usual array of jarring stylistic choices. Oh, and more gangsters.
Surreal, absurd, at times almost unnervingly silly, this is hardly Godard’s most noteworthy film, though it does compete with his most undisciplined. His conflicted feelings toward America and American culture are the elemental driving force here, not unlike the wrestling over his Napoleonic ambivalence so famously present in Beethoven’s Third Symphony. The attempt to forge a fused Franco-American aesthetic while raging against the two nations’ prevailing politics is interesting only in what it says about the contents of Godard’s head, as opposed to how he manifests his obsessions on the screen. Both are a mess, although, much like a Jackson Pollack painting, it’s a mess that becomes more interesting, even strangely beautiful, with distance.
True to his rebel nature, Godard identifies himself—and his collaborators—only by their initials in a brief opening credit sequence. By 1966, however, most—like Karina and legendary cinematographer Raoul Coutard—were famous enough that no further elaboration was needed. Other signposts—like assigning a pair of gangster killers the conspicuous names of Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon—are more intentionally obvious.
So just what is Godard trying to say? The same thing he’s been screaming at audiences for nearly a half-century. Everything and nothing. That it all matters, even though nothing matters. That life is a bed of roses until it’s not. Fight the power, unless it’s your power, in which case you’ll only end up fighting yourself.
In a time of severe economic uncertainty, it’s questionable whether even the most esoteric of New Wave adherents will want to wallow in this kind of Godardian excess—though it’s also quite possible that the film has never been more timely.
Only time will tell.
Distributor: Rialto Pictures
Cast: Anna Karina, Jean-Pierre Léaud, László Szabó and Yves Alfonso.
Director/Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard
Producer: George de Beauregard
Genre: Drama, French Language; subtitled
Running time: 81 min.
Release date: January 9 NY, January 16 LA