Early in Jean-Luc Godard’s tensile girl-and-gun caper, Made in U.S.A. (which plays NYC’s Film Forum from January 9 through January 22), Anna Karina — the Gallic auteur’s early-career muse and ex-spouse — declares: “Now fiction overtakes reality.” But this said-and-done partition by a director who was only beginning to brazenly hoist his political banderoles is analogous to questing for El Dorado: it is nowhere to be found.
For Godard, it represents a depth charge in what he perceived to be the Sargasso Sea of film narrative, one more in a string of assassinate-cinema salvos that counts Masculin Feminin, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and La Chinoise as same-minded and culminates with Week-End, his satiric pile-up of misanthropy. With its legion of footnote-necessary references to American film noir and French apparatchiks, Made in U.S.A. comes across as dense, playful and surprisingly poignant — thanks to the almond-eyed Karina’s finest hour and half.
Above all else, the film is Godard’s professional postscript to their conjugal split. Karina is lovelier and more emotive than ever as Paula Nelson, just arrived in the France-tinged “Atlantic City” in search of her possibly dead, politically dissident amour Richard P___ (the allegorical Godard). Whisking in the late Donald Westlake’s noir story The Jugger, Godard spools out the murderous intrigue in his typical, hopscotching syntax. Karina finds herself careening between Raoul Coutard’s exquisitely shot locations, dodging secret policemen and government agents with the j’accuse names Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara.
Dedicated to his American idols, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller, the picture remains deeply personal for several other reasons. As Godard put it, “I wanted to oblige a friend [the famed producer Georges de Beauregard], to tackle the Americanization of French life, and to do something with the Ben Barka affair.” An exiled Moroccan leftist leader, Barka was France’s controversial 1965 watchword after his government-executed disappearance and murder. The whitewashing of the conspiracy and Barka’s link to cinema — he was to work on a film about decolonization, Basta!, with would-be filmmaker Georges Figon — gave Godard his carte blanche.
Alas, Godard’s “Atlantic City” is a demimonde populated by his tongue-in-cheek incarnations: a manikin who packs a ready-for-use toothbrush rather than a pistol; a writer named David Goodis (referring to the underworld novelist who François Truffaut sourced for Shoot the Piano Player) working on his would-be masterpiece, The Unfinished Novel; or a childish henchman christened Donald Siegel (Jean-Pierre Léaud looking bored) after the mid-century American doyen of genre pics. The narrative unfurls as a concentrated weft of these cultural references — additional nods are made to figures as disparate as Richard Widmark, Guillaume Apollinaire, and the Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi. Musically, there are sounds as disparate as a galloping Schiller number and an enchanting, a capella rendition of Jagger-and-Richards’ “As Tears Go By” by a café patron who just happens to be Marianne Faithfull.
Yes, it’s all a bit much without a collated packet of the who-what-where-when-and-why for each soliloquy, for each insistent gesture. But with a tone that toes that fine line between mawkishness and outright mockery added to all the contextual citations, whence the basic loveliness? The haute and household fashions, the first-edition design of a book jacket, the way a cigarette is lit at so-and-so a distance — Godard’s aesthetic choices are out-and-out gorgeous even when his intellectual pursuits get fogged in translation.
Besides the famed Karina close-ups, Made in U.S.A. claims one of Godard’s wonderful codas: Karina and the journalist Philippe Labro (playing himself) advancing into the interminable green hills and blue overhead of France’s countryside. The two discuss Left-Right politics — “right and left, it’s a completely outdated question. That’s not at all the way to pose the problem” — but Godard chooses to fade out on a question that’s at once arguable and rhetorical: “Then how?” You’ll have to check out his later, didactic works for the answer.