If we accept that Michelangelo Antonioni is the God of Art occupying an exalted category of his own, the greatest living film artist is Jean-Luc Godard. This doesn’t, however, mean that we get to see his works, if at all, in a timely fashion, not in the United States at least, where so much genuine art, even by homegrown artists, is disparaged, killed or otherwise blocked from public view. It has taken me forty years to catch up with the Paris-born Swiss Godard’s Made in U.S.A. If you are from the U.S., are of a certain age, and possess a real love of movies, you may recall that we were barred from seeing this film in the sixties over a disputed issue of rights. The “rights” of film-concerned citizens are never taken into account.
Powerful enough to collapse the difference in time (although I should add that part of my spirit remains in the sixties), this is a staggering movie—and a wrecking one in its summary prophecy, to this effect: The Right and the Left, an “outdated formula,” won’t be changed, because the Right is too mean to change, and the Left, too sentimental to do so. Godard’s sympathies, of course, tend Leftward, but humanistically with a certain classicism. Godard isn’t of the careless Left or the sloppy Left.
Godard made this film and another, Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle, 1966), at the same time, going back and forth between them. More than Richard Stark/Donald E. Westlake’s mystery novel The Jugger went into Godard’s Made in U.S.A. Godard himself has summarized other influences and contributors:
As I had just seen [Howard Hawks’s 1946] The Big Sleep again, I thought of having the Humphrey Bogart role [of a private detective investigating a murder] played by a woman—Anna Karina [Godard’s then-wife], as it happens. I also decided to set the action in France rather than America, and worked a marginal episode of the [Mehdi] Ben Barka affair into the main theme. [Leftist Moroccan politician Ben Barka “was disappeared” in 1965, presumably the murder victim of French intelligence and the C.I.A.] My idea was that [Georges] Figon was not really dead, but had fled to the country and sent for his mistress to join him. [Figon was the small-time crook who claimed to have witnessed Ben Barka’s assassination by General Mohammed Oufkir, formerly Morocco’s minister of defense and, years earlier, of the French army. Figon himself was likely killed—officially, it was announced a suicide—before he could testify at Oufkir’s second trial.] [Figon’s mistress] comes to the address given her and finds him really dead this time. I have set the action [ahead] in 1969, two years after the parliamentary elections which will be held in March this year. The [considerably transformed] character is called Politzer [Richard P.], not Figon. No one knows why he died, and the girl sets out to uncover his past. Among other things, she discovers that he has been the editor of an important Parisian weekly which got very worked up over the Ben Barka affair, and for which she herself was a reporter. Because of her love for him she finds herself playing detective, gets tangled in a web of crooks and cops, and in the end decides to write an article about the affair. The film closes on a discussion with a journalist—Philippe Labro—in a Europe One radio station car.
The intricate topicality of this narrative stands in contradistinction to the escapist plots of thrillers among the American contemporaries of Made in U.S.A. Moreover, the title points to another, pervasive theme that Godard’s film pursues: omnipresent U.S. influence throughout the rest of the world, including France. Like an insinuating storm of deadly gas in a Fritz Lang silent, the impression made by American prerogatives, whether derived from U.S. politics or popular culture, commoditizes everything, including people and the souls of nations, stamping it with a familiar label of commercial industry. But, of course, Godard, who loves American movies and even borrows from them, is ambivalent about U.S. influence.
Godard is, as ever, playful and light. Here are the names of some of his characters: Donald Siegel, Richard Widmark, Inspector Aldrich [as in Robert], Robert MacNamara, Richard Nixon. A street is touchingly named Rue Preminger. A writer is named David Goodis. (Perhaps if his name had been Richard Stark, Westlake’s lawyers would not have sued!) There are postmodernist remarks in which characters, particularly Paula (Karina), reflect their existence in a film. “It’s like being in a Disney film with Humphrey Bogart,” Paula says, suggesting the mix of genres that wobbles her certainty as to what she is doing and what is going on around her. (In the film, Disney evolves into a symbol of U.S. crassness, commercialism and pop-cultural neocolonialism.) When someone denies killing Richard P., Paula will have none of it: “Tell that to the audience, not to me.”
Godard is, as ever, serious as well. Two hit men are veterans of the Moroccan war, which hangs over the film as a palling cycle of violence, since Morocco’s invasion of Algeria followed on the heels of Algeria’s war of independence from France. One character says to another, “The Moroccan war has made you unpleasant. . . . War never ends. . . .” Violence constantly erupts in the film. Paula bashes a man’s head onscreen with her pistol and kills two other men, one of whom is played by an actor we cherish. The red of (simulated) blood finds visual echoes throughout the film, marking, and in a way fragmenting, the mise-en-scène: red backdrops, red bricks, red cars, red flowers, red walls, red doors, red shutters, red shirts, red socks, a red tie, a red notebook cover, red letters in a neon sign, etc. These become abstracted indications of the blood with which Godard finds the political world of his day, whether in the West or northern Africa, soaked.
Paula, who comes to embody the ambiguity of the detective, the one who ironically creates chaos in a reckless pursuit to restore order by crime-solving, evolves into a figure of moral equivocation: except that she is a woman, modern man. Godard, Sartrean to his moral core, allows Paula to utter the creed that he himself has embraced: “Whatever I do, I cannot escape responsibility for others.” (Perhaps Godard’s finest expression of this conviction would arrive in his 1974 Numéro Deux/Essai Titres.*) The film therefore ends with her in a moral quandary, the lightness of Godard’s tone lending especial poignancy to Paula’s conclusive Shakespearean wonderment: “Am I the murders I’ve committed?” It might as well be the United States asking itself this question as the Vietnam War rages on. (Or France, over the Indo-China War that the U.S. thus took over and the more recently concluded Algerian War.) Paula: “Always blood, fear, politics and money.” Made in U.S.A. is especially adept at suggesting the conniving, corrupt mess of electoral politics at home.
Jean-Pierre Léaud, then about 21 or 22 (and looking even younger), plays Donald Siegel, one of the pair of thugs shadowing Paula, and possibly an inspiration for Keanu Reeves’s hilarious bumbler of a hit man in Lawrence Kasdan’s I Love You to Death (1990). (Reeves sweetly duplicated a classic Léaud/Godard stunt with a cigarette in Steven Baigelman’s 1996 Feeling Minnesota.) It is Paula’s murder of Siegel in a commercial garage that constitutes the film’s most brilliant and trenchant passage. We see Siegel alone in the frame. Paula, offscreen, asks him, “If you are about to die, would you like to know in advance?”—or something like that. Siegel: “No.” Gunshot; Siegel’s death, a series of horrifyingly comical stumbles and rolls in glorious hommage to Zbigniew Cybulski’s death as Maciek in Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958), is limber, painful and protracted. (Maciek’s death scene itself probably derives from Richard III’s in Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film.) But here is the thing: When Siegel tells Paula he wouldn’t like to know in advance when he is about to die, he does know. We do not see Paula, who is not in the frame, but Siegel is facing her—facing her and the gun she is holding in her hand, which is aimed at him. Once we take this into account, the illusion of choice that Paula is handing Siegel is ripped apart; he does know what Paula is about to do, and his honest answer to Paula’s question cloaks an execution—his—that in reality he cannot escape. There is no choice, even where there appears to be. Morally, Godard is existentialist; practically, he is not. This illusion of choice masking an absence of choice cannot help but remind us of Léaud’s “choice” in the state reform school in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), when an official efficiently removes his wristwatch and gives Léaud’s character, Antoine Doinel, the “choice” of whether to be slapped across the face with a right hand or a left. The punishment, which pierces the soundtrack, is inescapable—and its echo, now with an even worse resolution for a young Léaud character, deepens the pity and agony of the moment. For us, now, something beyond the text of the scene is an inescapable part of the text: the future unraveling of the close friendship between dear François and a harsh though just Jean-Luc.
Indeed, given Godard’s expertly applied barrage of distancing techniques, we may be surprised at how bleeding an event watching Made in U.S.A. proves to be. Paula’s equivocal nature is correlative to Godard’s attempt to disengage his heart from the woman and actress who had been his Muse. Like Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Godard’s film is a barely concealed record of the dissolution of his marriage, in his case to Karina, and this also lends the film fleeting notes of melancholy and regret fit to break any human heart. The coldness of the film’s surface projects the bankruptcy of a vast emotional investment; a rage of sadness lies below.
We joke—how we joke!—that the plot of The Big Sleep is impossible to follow; one of its scenarists—I forget whether it was William Faulkner or Leigh Brackett—confessed that even he couldn’t figure out who murdered whom. Well, the narrative of Hawks’s film is crystal-clear compared to that of Godard’s! Such discontinuous action as the film provides helps make the plot inexplicable; delightfully, here is a story impossible to follow. This outcome is not without purpose. Godard dedicates the film to Nick and Sam, that is, American filmmakers Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, “who taught [him] about image and sound.” These are the things that matter in this film: image and sound. Still, the central event—a woman’s sleuthing into the circumstances of her mysterious lover’s mysterious death—sets up an expectation of some sort of narrative resolution. The impossible-to-follow story that frustrates this expectation moves us to turn inward to sound out our dependency on conventional narrative. This in turn finds us questioning one of the correlatives to this dependency: our vulnerability to political manipulation as leaders and candidates, treating us as objects, press us from one connecting dot to another, justifying their grab for power at the expense of our dignity, our freedom and, sometimes, our lives and the lives of others, for which Jean-Luc Godard believes we are responsible.
With us (and himself), as with Truffaut, dear Jean-Luc is harsh though just.
* Please visit my essay on Numéro Deux/Essai Titres, filed under “film reviews” elsewhere on this site.
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