Though it opens with its heroine waking up in bed and ends with her dozing off in a car, Made in U.S.A unspools as dreamscape. Yet dreams—the characters’, the director’s, the audience’s—in Jean-Luc Godard’s astonishing pop panorama have become terminally glutted with commoditized images, unreliable sounds, and robotic slogans. The film’s setting, Atlantic Cité, is as wholly artificial as Jacques Demy’s Cherbourg, but the hues of its simulacra are more ominous than romantic. The primary colors are eye-stabbingly brash, but the walls they cover are often battered brick and peeling metal; the visuals continuously suggest vivid rouge applied to an old woman’s sagging cheeks. That old woman is France, or rather Godard’s vision of a culture trying to paper over its political cracks with comic-book panels and movie-star billboards. When the protagonist describes her situation as “a Walt Disney movie but with Humphrey Bogart,” it’s clear that escapist palliatives are what’s being “Made in U.S.A,” exported and spilled into minds. Because the picture’s mind is Godard’s, however, there’s a complex ambivalence toward American culture that pushes the analysis beyond mere Yankee-Go-Home rhetoric and into multilayered critique of the world and the artist’s role in it.
When the entire world feels manufactured, “truth” can be just another brand name. The heroine, Paula Nelson (Anna Karina), is a seeker. She dons a trench coat, packs a pistol, and wanders in and out of hotel rooms, gyms, and garages, searching for her missing ex-fiancée. “Now fiction overtakes reality,” she says. Deranged by Godard’s distancing techniques (non-sequitur visual shifts, dialogue drowned out by the whoosh of an off-screen plane), the mystery is also littered with cinephiliac jests: A limping old woman gives her information like the one who confides in Glenn Ford in The Big Heat, while Jean-Pierre Léaud is christened “Donald Siegel” so that his presence as a spastic runty hood can evoke Baby Face Nelson. Just as tortuous as Hollywood crime-movie mythology, political intrigue includes intimations of Algeria, Vietnam, the Mehdi Ben Barka affair, and a shady pair named Nixon and McNamara. Since Breathless, Godard’s people have been aware they are characters in a movie, but rarely have they been so oppressed by their intertextual surroundings. Screen space is brutally flattened in Raoul Coutard’s widescreen compositions, characters are posed against pinball machines and cutout posters like glued figures on a Rauschenberg canvas. Paula’s sleuthing destroys more than it clarifies, yet it’s a genuine attempt at resistance. A passive consciousness is a consciousness under attack. (The word “liberty” defaced by a fusillade is a recurring image.) The search is less for a vanished comrade than for a way out of a labyrinth of cultural colonialism.
Godard’s films are records (documentaries, even) of personal interests, ecstasies, and agonies at a particular time in the artist’s life. The idea for Made in U.S.A reportedly came from a viewing of Howard Hawks’s noir classic The Big Sleep and an outline of Donald E. Westlake’s pulp novel The Jugger. (Issues over the uncredited lifting of elements from the novel are what kept the film virtually unreleased for four decades.) Another unmistakable force in the project is Godard’s own imploding relationship with his muse Karina: In Sternberg-Dietrich terms, this is certainly their The Devil Is a Woman, a frozen veneer over a lake of sadness. Still, it would be reductive to read Paula’s shooting of Widmark (László Szabó) and David Goodis (Yves Afonso) as misogynistic disenchantment. In the context of a transitional work suspended between Godard’s more playful early experiments and the later, more severe political tracts, it’s more useful to see it as the auteur’s killing of parts of himself. After all, not even the director’s own persona should be exempt from his mercurial struggle to tear down conventions. Made in U.S.A is a staggeringly inventive and profoundly moving picture, a melancholy crossroads in which we see Godard biding adieu to the of yearning innocence of Marianne Faithfull and “As Tears Go By” and moving ahead to the aggressive impudence of Mick Jagger and “Sympathy for the Devil.”