Godard spills the beans on politics and atrocity

Made in U.S.A., 1966

Review by Peter Hulm

Sixty years since Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless burst onto our screens in 1959, it is still only 10 years since the United States premiered Made in U.S.A., a 1966 film by the French-Swiss filmmaker about atrocity in politics. Disguised as a nonsensical private-eye thriller, this nightmare version of Alice in Wonderland or Tintin today looks more and more realistic.

Jean-Luc Godard, who turned 88 last 3 December, makes probably the most charmless films in the history of cinema. But this statement should be read as a description not a judgment. His films highlight the extent to which other directors rely on charm to make their movies acceptable: the charms of narrative, character, theme, story, spectacle, display, 'content', personality, photography, fluidity of editing, voyeurism, spectator distance, personal involvement, 'realism' or willful fantasy.

Godard's stylistic originality – his strategy of disenchantment, demystification, and deconstruction of conventional efforts to disguise the coercive messages of conventional films – frequently hides from critics the extent to which his films are political, not just in their theoretical monologues, but also in their concern with the practical realities and violence of modern politics, particularly torture and assassination (Le Petit Soldat, Les Caribiniers, and Made in U.S.A., i.e. particularly in his least discussed works).

In Made in U.S.A., what is striking in retrospect is his fidelity to our knowledge of politics which modern society provides.

As a result, in explicating the film, the normally careful critic Richard Roud confesses: "The plot is extremely confusing. [...] The reason for this confusion is quite simple: Godard's desire for realism. Nobody knows to this day who killed Ben Barka and how it was done [...] And, Warren Report or not, no one yet knows the full story of the Kennedy assassination [both referred to in the film]. Any film about these events would, according to Godard, be false and dishonest. Just as Les Caribiniers seemed to many stupid and nonsensical, so Made in U.S.A. seems to many confused and absurd. The reasons are similar in both cases. But at least anyone could follow Les Caribiniers, whereas the same is not true of Made in U.S.A."

Roud's fellow critic and scholar Ian Cameron points out that Godard says he was inspired by Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep, but with a woman wearing the detective's trenchcoat, and no-one, not even its original author Raymond Chandler or Hawks himself, has been able to make sense of that plot. At least Godard was trying to reflect political realities.

Finally, with much hesitation, Roud thought Made in U.S.A. a failure. Godard himself told the critic Colin MacCabe: "Things were too mixed up. I wanted to say too many things."

It was filmed to help out producer Georges Beauregard when Godard had already been commissioned to make One or Two Things that I know about Her.

The most common response seems to have been: "It is his slightest film since Alphaville, perhaps even since Bande à Part. Conversely [a word that seems to turn up very often in articles on Godard], it is also one of the most difficult" (Cameron). "It's no surprise that the film's Swedish distributors caught a terrible cold with it, for Made in U.S.A. is the least exportable of Godard's films".

Its difficulties have been ascribed to his efforts to use anti-narrative techniques and fragmentation of plot at the same time as setting out an exposition of the absurdity of the contemporary world: "In fact, according to traditional views of aesthetics, it is wholly proper to have the form express the content. But this has not been Godard's way before, and it doesn't work too well here" (Roud). Cameron, too, recognizes Made in U.S.A. as having a "centre-less structure".

But many of the "meaningless" remarks, Cameron notes, prove to have significance. For example, in a bar Anna Karina notes that "during a war 70+14 make 40" (a reference to three French disasters – the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, the outbreak of the First World War and assassination of the Socialist leader Jean-Jaurès, and the collapse of French defenses at Sedan in 1940.

For a "slight" film, Made in U.S.A. carries some heavy political baggage: "References to Kennedy, to Ben Barka, to the murder of the mayor of Evian and to the fates of the 17 witnesses to the Kennedy assassination as well as to the fact that Paula [Anna Karina] wanted to write a book on Lee Harvey Oswald, underline the impression that assassination is the international reserve currency of politics. Richard [Paula's murdered boyfriend] wrote that 'le fascisme était le dollar de la morale' [Fascism was the currency of morality]" (Cameron).

Similarly, "torture is a normal part of the political underworld's activities. Marie Dufour [one of the briefly seen characters] was tortured with a razor blade. Mme Celine, the charwoman from Une Femme Mariée, turns up walking with a limp. We learn that she has been tortured. [She says:] 'Toujours le sang, la peur, la politique, l'argent. [Forever blood, fear, politics, money]'".

Twice the film insists, via the cover of a paperback book, that the revolutionary left is back to its starting point: "gauche année zéro", as Cameron also notes. The film ends with an observation that Left and Right are outdated notions, and questions have to be posed in other terms.

Cameron also picks up on Godard's concern with politics as war ("since Le Petit Soldat"), the illusion of war as a game (in Les Caribiniers), war as entertainment (in Pierrot le Fou), and politics as a bad movie. Towards the end of the film, Godard's commentary asserts: "We were certainly in a film about politics: Walt Disney plus blood".

Writing at the turn of the millennium, Colin MacCabe draws a conclusion that differs from earlier critics: "What the film actually demonstrates is the complete inability of the form to deal with the reality of a politics which eludes the easy solutions of the thriller genre. In some ways, the simple and sombre message of the film is the inability of the left to cope with the development of consumer capitalism".

Godard described his aim around that time as "to show and to show myself showing" (MacCabe).

Made in U.S.A. represents the last of his films working within the old narrative structure (many of the characters are named after Godard's favourite American directors and thriller writers), demonstrating through its manipulation of the plot elements and scenario the disintegration of such strategies in the face of modern politics.

In the later 266-min. Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98), Godard's technical expertise, an attempt to tell the history of cinema visually, was not just a demonstration of formal mastery: "The failure to prevent or record the [Nazi concentration and extermination] camps is one of the major, if not the major, theme of the Histoire(s)" (MacCabe).

The juxtaposition of Elizabeth Taylor's (supposedly) smiling face with footage of the concentration camps became "the most discussed sequence" from the first part. In fact, she was not smiling and Godard's commentary points out that George Stevens, director of the film A Place in the Sun from which the Taylor still is taken, made his first film in colour at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück.

Godard's commentary also brings to the forefront the double reality hidden behind these stills: "He analyses the force of Taylor's smile in terms of Stevens's desire to celebrate life after this experience of death. On the other hand, this scene fits into the major theme of the histories — that the cinema is guilty for allowing the camps to happen, for not recording history accurately enough either to stop the killing from happening or to understand what happened" (MacCabe).

Accepting that Godard considers Made in U.S.A. less than satisfactory ("It is not very good because there are a lot of extremely confused things in it" – 1980), the explanation for its confusions is instructive.

Whereas the film he was making in parallel introduces us to Godard's favorite device of the unreliable commentator (a voice-over whose statements are not to be taken on trust), Made in U.S.A. represented a fiction he had constructed "purely commercially. What was most interesting was above all the colours: there was a certain amount of research into colours; but that does not make a film" (156).

Godard, however, is not the most reliable judge of his films (he later condemned Breathless/A bout du souffle!).

In reality, he had adapted (extremely loosely) a book by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake), The Jugger. But the producer had not completely paid for the rights, and never did, since only about a minute of the original was used and the tough hero became Anna Karina.

But Godard told the magazine Sight & Sound he was making a film from a Stark thriller, and Westlake sued for copyright infringement. The case took years but the author eventually won. Westlake received U.S. distribution rights (Europe was less protective). No-one in America was interested in showing the film and Westlake thought it was his worst book (though later critics disagreed).

The film finally had its U.S. premiere on 1 April 2009, some months after Westlake's death. See The Westlake Review, which sums it up: "A crazed auteur turned [Westlake's] story into a weird abstract political diatribe dressed up in noir clothing, that seems to have something to do with the Vietnam War […], and features a drop-dead Danish dame playing the roughest of all rough-hewn American tough guys. Westlake not only didn't get paid for this, but he had to drag the producers into court, and then settle for the U.S. rights to a movie he hated, that only diehard Godard buffs would ever pay money to see, and he didn't see a franc until just before he kicked (if then)."

No wonder Godard didn't want to speak much about it.

The 1990s onwards, with the films of Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as David Cronenberg's more adventurous experiments, have put Made in U.S.A. in a less absurd light. The same kind of confusion (of the spectator) in Made in U.S.A. can be found in David Lynch's Eraserhead, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

Given Godard's experience with the inadequacies of narrative to deal with political horror, one can understand his complaint to New York's film critics (refusing their award in 1995) that they had failed "to prevent Mr Spielberg from reconstructing Auschwitz" (MacCabe).

"From very early on," writes Colin MacCabe, "Godard held that the only way to film the camps would be from the perspective of the home life of one of the guards" (ibid).

With the fractured elliptical style, its black jokes, and acceptance of the social framework in which torture routinely takes place Made in U.S.A. gives us Godard's picture of society as viewed by society's guards.

"In one of the most shocking moments of the film, Karina asks the character Donald [Siegal, almost the name of a major Hollywood noir director] (and played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), 'If you had to die, would you prefer to know beforehand or would you rather it was sudden?' 'I'd rather it was sudden,' he replies. She shoots him, and all we hear from him as he dies are his cries for his mother" (MacCabe).

Karina's character also murders the investigator David Goodis(!yes another noir innovator) to keep him from revealing the truth about an atrocity.

In a Montreal seminar on Made in U.S.A., Godard suggests that detective thrillers are so popular because the investigator "corresponds to the notion of liberty which people have (which is not necessarily freedom) — someone who walks around hands in pockets [as Karina does in the film], who does nothing, who is not forced to work at a machine like a factory worker, who does not have any heavy governmental responsibilities or anything like that, who smokes a cigarette, who can go into a pub, who can grab someone by the collar and ask them questions...It must represent the ideal of freedom for the West. Those are the real heroes, the police officers, even if people do not like them" (1980).

Made in U.S.A. is full of such characters.

Some authors' failures are more instructive than others' successes. Made in U.S.A. bristles with ideas – about the ubiquity of disruptive sounds in everyday life, about the use of colour (and this is an exceptionally beautiful film), the refusal to pretend that the actors are characters from the script, and the frustration of audience expectations of narrative, film scripts or standard realism.

The absurd math of politics is laid bare in a bar where a zombielike Marianne Faithful sings her most famous song with no-one taking any notice ('Tears go by'), and a workman spouts nonsense sentences over his glass of wine.


An earlier version of this piece was published in my 2004 Ph.D. dissertation on atrocity and celebrity in the media for the European Graduate School (Leipzig/New York/Saas-Fee and now Malta). Ian Cameron's remarks come from The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (1967). The Colin MacCabe quotes are from Godard. Images, Sounds, Politics (1980) and Godard. A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (2003). Richard Roud's book Godard was published in 1967.

A 25-minute interview with Godard published on 14 April 2019 is available on French-Swiss television's website.