It is maybe a couple of years in the future and Paula Nelson (Anna Karina) is a woman with a mission. Her friend Richard has just died, but she doesn't believe that's the end of the story, and is in the city where he passed away, supposedly of natural causes, to discover what really happened to him. Could Richard have been murdered? As Paula muses over her relationship with him while lying on the bed in her hotel room, there's a knock at the door. It's the chambermaid with something for her to drink, and they have a brief conversation but Paula cannot help but notice the two men waiting outside her window in a black car. Once the chambermaid leaves, there's another knock at the door, but dare she let the man in, even if he has valuable information?
As this is a mystery written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, actually adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel but not so's you'd notice, you don't expect the plotline to be handled with much importance, yet here he does stay faithful to the genre and does attempt to wrap the whole enigma up neatly at the end. Obviously it ends with more characters dying, as is the rule, but the rules are made to be broken, and the precise reasons that Godard kills them off don't entirely follow on from the rest of the film. If, on the other hand, you want to watch Made in U.S.A. for its director's emerging poitical consciousness, you may find it equally baffling in that aspect as well.
In fact, the film is best seen as a series of vignettes, some scenes from a mystery or thriller, and others from a more polemical work. Do they marry into a satisfying unity? Not really, but as it starts out with the playfulness of Godard's earlier sixties productions, it's fun to be carried along with it as Paula (Karina should have sacked her makeup artist, incidentally - if she had one on this tiny budget) turns sleuth, all too aware of her place in the cinematic tradition of screen detectives; so aware that she mentions it in her narration as she's knows she's in a film.
Not only that, but she wears a trenchcoat as well, just as Humphrey Bogart would have. On her investigations, Paula finds a bandaged and flayed body in a doctor's surgery for no good reason, that the people she'd been discussing this and that with her near the start of the film have been murdered, and that, unsurprisingly Richard has been murdered after all. It's as if having the central figure of a detective in this work has put Godard in a questioning frame of mind, witness the way almost everything mentioned in the script is the subject of probing mind games.
And yet that kidding nature holds Made in U.S.A. together, with the breaking of the fourth wall, and quirks such as Richard's surname drowned out by background noise every time it's mentioned (Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll suffers the same treatment!) only enhance the technique. Marianne Faithfull appears as herself and does nothing but sit in the café and sing her biggest hit, and Jean-Pierre Léaud overacts cheekily, but there's a change of mood on the cards. Once Paula finds a tape with Richard's political dogma on it (actually a recording of Godard's voice) that sunshiney look is replaced with a gloomier, overcast appearance and the harsh realities of an ideological spectrum that will never reconcile its differences bring everyone down. It's as if two thirds of the way through Godard had a fit of depression, one which lasted the rest of his career.