Friday, January 09, 2009

U.S. Premiere: Godard’s Made in U.S.A.

A film set in that provincial French village of Atlantic City and featuring an appearance by Marianne Faithful singing “As Tears Go By,” in between droning voice-overs of orthodox Marxism could only come from one filmmaker: French auteur Jean-Luc Godard. Infamous as much for the circumstances surrounding it as it’s on-screen story, Godard’s Made in U.S.A. (1967, trailer here), finally makes its belated official American debut today at the Film Forum in New York.

Due to the peculiarities of his financial situation, producer Georges de Beauregard needed to put a film into production quickly (and cheaply). Although Godard was already filming Two or Three Things I Know About Her at the time, he was game for the challenge. Quickly settling on Donald E. Westlake’s novel The Jugger (written under the Richard Stark pseudonym) as his source material, Godard then proceeded to radically reshape it into a satirical allegory about the disappearance of Moroccan Marxist Ben Barka. However, Godard and the cash-strapped Beauregard never properly cleared the rights to Westlake’s novel, which is why Made in U.S.A. is only now receiving a proper American release. Obviously, the rights issues must have been settled, since the film is here and Westlake himself was co-operating the publicity efforts for its release, until his recent death on New Year’s Eve night.

Made actually has a describable linear plot, that borrows heavily from the conventions of film noir. However, Godard plays so many of his signature cinematic games and injects such strident (and dated) politics, it is probably not a good starter film for Godard neophytes (Breathless or Contempt would work better for that). However, Godard enthusiasts will likely have a ball watching Godard be Godard.

Ostensibly, Made follows Paula Nelson, played by Godard’s muse and ex-wife Anna Karina, as she hunts for the murderer of her more-or-less former lover, Georges Politzer, a Marxist journalist. In the course of her investigation, she encounters a writer named David Goodis, a secret policeman named Widmark (Christian name Paul, but often mistaken as Richard, in a reference Godard may not necessarily have been making), and two co-conspirators, Richard Nixon and Robert MacNamara (those were deliberate).

While the events of Made unfold in an orderly sequence, looking for logic in the film, especially in terms of motivation, would be a frustrating endeavor. There is always an inescapable randomness in Godard’s universe. There is plenty of meaning though. The didactic politics are inescapable, suggesting anyone slightly to the right of Frantz Fanon is an immoral, illiterate thug. The relationship between Nelson and Politzer also takes on additional layers of meaning given the history between Karina and Godard (who supplies the late Politizer’s disembodied voice).

Karina gives a surprisingly sensitive performance, despite the eccentricity around her and the often strident dialogue. She has a truly poignant screen presence, heightened by Godard’s effective use of music by Schuman and Beethoven. Exhibiting all of Godard’s greatest strengths and idiosyncrasies, Made is never dull but it can be exasperating. It is unquestionably an important film in his canon, but not exactly a full masterpiece in its own right. Still, Made’s premiere American run, starting today at the Film Forum, is a legitimate cinematic event.

Photo credit: Rialto Pictures. Playing 1/9-1/22.