Blu-ray Review: America As Seen By A Frenchman

I’ve been covering the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for over a decade. Part of the fun in attending is the conversation where people are constantly recommending film that either were showing that weekend or just needed to be seen. The festival also programs older titles with guest curators. In all that time, I have no recollection of anyone saying, “How have you not seen America As Seen By A Frenchman?” So when this documentary from 1960 arrived in the mail from Arrow Academy, I was taken back. What could this be? Ultimately it is a snapshot of America at the end of the ’50s when a nation was enjoying the good life in Post-World War II while stealing dealing with a lot issues.

Documentarian Francois Reichenbach was part of the French New Wave movement. Since he didn’t create dramas, he didn’t get the profile accorded to Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol. Reichenbach is mainly known for collaborating with Orson Welles on F Is For Fake (1975). But at the end of the ’50s, Reichenbach roamed around the United States with a 35mm film camera and captured so much that was happening. America As Seen By A Frenchman is an travelogue that spans from San Francisco to New York City with stops in Texas and beyond. Over the course of 18 months, he went from Disneyland to a prison license plate factory. He captured parades and stunt shows. He even had time to drop by a striptease class. Unlike what we’re used to now, Reichenbach isn’t part of the shot. He stays behind the camera. He allows the film to open with a letter from icon Jean Cocteau. He collaborates on the script with Chris Marker, the director of Le Jetee. He has various narrators so this feels like a Mondo film. But he’s not out to show his audience all the bizarre elements of America like a Mondo Cane-esque travelogue. Although he does capture quite a few of the odder elements of 1959.

What ties the entire piece together is the score from Michel Legrand (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg & The Thomas Crown). There’s not a lot of location sound so his music makes this a poem to the country. Reichenbach doesn’t go to deep into racial relations in a country. We get a sense of segregation from the make up of various events. During the prisoner rodeo, we see how the make up of the “free” audience is so different from prisoners.

Within the movie’s 90 minutes is a treasure trove. People who enjoy glimpsing into what life was like in the ’50s will be thrilled. After years of rationing for the war effort, Americans were becoming consumers. There’s a focus on the cars including a drive thru wedding chapel. We gets a prime view of the national Soap Box Derby race. There’s even Joey Chitwood’s Hell Drivers wrecking cars during their stunt show. This is a wonderful time capsule of the era. This was what it was like in the era of Happy Days except these aren’t actors wandering around studio sets. Since Reichenbach used a 35mm film camera, so many details come forward in 1080p. This is a documentary that you should send any relatives that grew up in the late ’50s. America As Seen By A Frenchman is a remarkable time capsule to remind us of how things were and where we should be going. The next Full Frame Festival will feature me talking up the documentary.

The video is 2.35:1 anamorphic. The documentary was shot in 35mm and the transfer will let you get lost in the details. You can even see the Indian and African Tribesmen displays from Disneyland. The audio is LCPM mono in French. The movie is subtitled in English.

F Is For French (23:34) is a new video appreciation of the film by author and critic Philip Kemp. He gives a bit of background on Reichenbach. Turns out the director had a pretty good childhood.

Image Gallery (1:13) are snapshots from the shoot including showing off how he mounted the 35mm in a convertible car to get those great driving shots.

Arrow Academy present America As Seen By A Frenchman. Directed by: Francois Reichenbach. Screenplay by: Francois Reichenbach & Chris Marker. Starring: Jean Cocteau. Rated: Unrated. Running Time: 90 minutes. Released: June 2, 2020.

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