What does America look like to the outside world? While that might not be a question you want answered all the time, François Reichenbach’s documentary, America As Seen by A Frenchman, came out in 1960 so the footage is from the late 50’s. Right or wrong, it’s a decade that pop culture’s been nostalgic for, and It never hurts to get an outsider’s opinion.
Reichenbach spent 18 months in America. In a video appreciation of the film, “F for French,” film historian Philip Kemp provides some background on the director, who was associated with the French New Wave, but mostly worked in documentaries. America As Seen by A Frenchman was his first feature length documentary and begins in San Francisco, California.
As Reichenbach himself admits in the voiceover, there’s no real reason the film opens in California, other than that’s where the trip started. He’s specific about the date – August 30th – but leaves out the year, which seems strange. Knowing that the film ends on November 18th in New York, you would think the film moves in chronological order, with Reichenbach starting on one coast and ending up on the other, but that’s not how the film is edited at all. From San Diego, to Houston, Texas, back to Santa Monica, Reichenbach jumps all over the place, making seemingly random transitions without giving a reason.
Visually, you couldn’t ask for crisper footage and it’s the randomness that keeps the film from getting dry. It’s not surprising, for instance, that a Miss. America competition gets some attention. But after showing the girls arrive at the pageant, Reichenbach cuts to them taking judo lessons, which is not what you’d expect. Then again, it’s hard to know whether to trust the voiceover. It’s indicated that these are the same women, but then again, the scenes might not be related at all.
As film critic Caspar Salmon brings up in his booklet essay, Unusual America (which is the literal translation of the French title for the film), Reichenbach does tend to generalize and make out like certain scenes are representative of all America, when they’re not. He also never addresses segregation or racism. None of the subjects in his film are interviewed. It’s all voiceover, which when you’re dealing with subtitles can be hard to keep up with sometimes. America As Seen by A Frenchman begins with a quote from Jean Cocteau (Orpheus), which if you know French, can be read all at once, but is much harder to appreciate broken up into subtitles. Even the woman who splits the voiceover work with Reichenbach doesn’t seem to be credited – Salmon just says, “voiceover by Reichenbach and his female counterpart.”
Then there’s the question of access which Kemp brings up in his appreciation. Reichenbach films some scenes in a prison, for example, but did he have to get permission from the inmates to film them? Reichenbach definitely has a European sensibility when it comes to nudity and, in one horrifying sequence, it turns out horse diving was a real thing. A major selling point for the film is the score by Young Girls of Rochefort’s Michel Legrand and Arrow’s Blu-Ray release also comes with an image gallery, which includes the photo Ignatius Fitzpatrick must have referenced for the cover art.
America As Seen By A Frenchman is available now on Blu-Ray from Arrow Academy.
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