AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN [1960 / 2020] [Blu-ray] [UK Release] A French satirical documentary film directed by François Reichenbach about his travels around the USA!

At the end of the 1950s, celebrated French documentarian François Reichenbach (‘F for Fake’ and ‘Portrait: Orson Welles’), whose lens captured the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Johnny Hallyday, spent eighteen months travelling the United States, documenting its diverse regions, their inhabitants and their pastimes. The result, ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCH MAN,’ is a wide-eyed perhaps even naïve journey through a multitude of different Americas, filtered through a French sensibility and serving as a fascinating exploration of a culture that is both immediately familiar and thoroughly alien.

Prison rodeos; Miss America pageants; visits to Disneyland and a school for striptease; a town inhabited solely by twins; rows of new-borns in incubators, like products on an assembly line – all these weird and wondrous sights, and more, are captured, “sans jugement,” by François Reichenbach’s camera, aided by whimsical narration (provided by, among others, Jean Cocteau) and a jaunty musical score by the late, great Michel Legrand (‘Une femme est une femme’ aka ‘A Woman Is A Woman’).

Titled originally in France as ‘L’Amérique insolite’ – literally as “Unusual America” – in its native tongue, ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCH MAN lovingly renders the various eccentricities of Americana circa the mid-twentieth century, and proves the old adage that reality really is stranger than fiction.

FILM FACT: ‘L’Amérique insolite’ was entered an nominated for the 1960 Cannes Film Festival for the Palme d'Or and also  won the Golden Gate Award at the 1962 San Francisco International Film Festival for the Best Documentary for ‘L’Amérique insolite.’

Cast: Jean Cocteau (Narrator) and June Richmond (Singer)      

Director: François Reichenbach

Producer: Pierre Braunberger

Screenplay: Chris Marker (dialogue) and François Reichenbach 

Composer: Michel Legrand

Cinematography:  François Reichenbach (Director of Photography), Jean-Marc Ripert Photography), Jérôme Sutter (Director of Photography) and Marcel Grignon (Director of Photography)

Image Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (Anamorphic)

Audio: French: 1.0 LPCM Mono Audio
English: 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo Audio

Subtitles: English

Running Time: 90 minutes

Region: Region B/2

Number of discs: 1

Studio: Arrow Academy

Andrew’s Blu-ray Review: ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN’ [French: ‘L’Amérique insolite’] [1960] This French satirical documentary is a general, unquestioning  travelogue of the United States through the eyes of French director and co-cameraman François Reichenbach, a director often fascinated with life in the home of the French-made Statue of Liberty. ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN’ by French documentarian François Reichenbach and is a poetic love-letter to America and its culture.

Featuring a prologue at the start of the documentary written by Jean Cocteau entitled L’Amérique insolite vue par François Reichenbach, where Jean Cocteau quotes a statement by François Reichenbach as follows: “I spent 18 months in America, seeking out the mundane and the extraordinary. My camera and I were welcomed everywhere, even in prisons. Nothing you are about to see has been reconstructed. I just wanted to show America with its strict rules and indulgence; its meticulous habits, its good faith, its eternal desire for youth and freedom without which a film like this could not be made.”

From the attractions of the West Coast including Disneyland to the skyscrapers of New York, François Reichenbach is curious about everything. A prison rodeo (later to come under closer and more critical scrutiny in the 1990s), culturally and ethnically mixed neighbourhoods, religions outside the mainstream, ghost towns, and the unique world of the American teen are all given a peek. These views of the USA are informative though absent of critical analysis.

By the end of the 1950s, Europe had rebuilt after WWII and the United States had cemented its place as the world’s sole global superpower. An economic boom and Cultural Revolution followed suit, changing the world as we know it, during a long-gone and often overly romanticised era. It was on the cusp of this decade of decadence that French documentarian François Reichenbach travelled to the US on an 18-month long adventure, documenting his findings and insights into everything from prison rodeos to the birth of mass consumerism.

‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN,’ originally entitled ‘L’Amérique insolite’ [Unusual America], is exactly what it sounds like. It offers a snapshot in time of the vast and diverse landscape and populations of America with a French sensibility, its use of jump-cuts and handheld cameras lending itself to the French New Wave. Yet, it is often naive in its view of this foreign land, like a child mesmerised by their magical surroundings and blissfully ignorant to America’s darker underbelly.

The journey kicks off at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, where François Reichenbach meets participants of the “Salt Route,” re-staged in Houston. Ordinary Americans saddle up horses and carts and re-live, for a few days, the experience of the founding fathers. The voice-over expresses how their Native Indians will live forever live in their hearts – a rather dubious statement. But François Reichenbach really gets going with the next sequence, a photo shot on a beach in California where a couple of actors get really excited by their activities, “even beyond their remit”. This male perspective never comes to rest.

For this it can be forgiven, as the more disturbing elements of USA culture wouldn’t fully come to light until later in the decade when the Vietnam War became hopeless, Richard Nixon entered the White House, and the likes of LSD-fuelled Hunter S. Thompson turned everyone’s rose-tinted view of America on its head. Indeed, many parts of this documentary’s portrayal of the stranger aspects of American life are accompanied by the cynical yet whimsical postmodernist commentary of Jean Cocteau; one particularly ironic scene is one in which Jean Cocteau mocks tourists for living through the lens of their fancy new Kodak cameras. Human behaviour hasn’t changed too much, it would seem! The technology just got better.

Shots of dilapidated buildings and car wrecks filling lakes offer a more depressing view of capitalism, at a time when it was being celebrated in the post-war golden era, which sharply contrasts with the film’s more fanciful view of the advertising industry: a white man’s playground to be as creative as possible in order to make sales (à la Mad Men). Contradictions like this make the film at times feel incoherent, yet it’s the documentary’s lack of direction which allows it to be more playful.

“Every night, dozens of kids file through here,” Jean Cocteau commentates as the French filmmakers watch baby-faced tough guy teens — perhaps taking after James Dean’s ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ [1959] — in a police line-up in Texas. “In the eyes of the American creed, they all have the vices. Laziness, brutality and, worst of all, unhappiness. In their stubborn silence, they shout in the faces of their parents and teachers that all is not well, that life is not easy.” Something about this excerpt of American youth seems to precede the counterculture movement that would come that decade, but also the aimlessness and apathy which would follow upon its extinction.

Other views we get to see is when a young boy is given a gigantic grotesque bowl of ice cream, who eventually eats the lot and I felt physically sick watching him, and no wonder at that time in history, that Americans started to get massively overweight and obese. Another gross horrible item I got to see is a chicken in a small cage and when it hits a button, this small ball hits ten skittles at the back and if all ten skittles get lifted it gets food, talk about something so gross and revolting and eventually of course the chicken will get over fed and totally over weight, which I found totally offensive, cruel and nasty. The third item in this documentary that offended me greatly, was seeing a horse and her rider on a massive tall tower and eventually both the horse and the rider dive into a small swimming pool, again I found this very cruel, but it seems the horse did not mind as it seemed like the horse enjoyed the experience, by going up to the top of the tower to perform the stunt again.      

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of this documentary is the way in which both celebrate’s America’s diversity without ignoring its more bizarre characteristics. The filmmakers entered the USA through the Golden Gate Bridge and leave it by air, 18-months later, and in the process created a film which is as close as one can get to experiencing America at the start of one its most important decades.

But soon we come back to the sexy side of it all, visiting a school for striptease where young women learn the trade. A half-naked young woman appears in an ad while the off-voice commentator states” this woman has an ordinary husband.” François Reichenbach spends an awful long time at the beach where teenagers “discover their sexuality”. After a demolition derby, the feature takes us to New Orleans, where the carnival processions are strictly segregated: Black and White Carnival does not meet. It all ends up in New York with its massive glass store-fronts, making François Reichenbach comments: New York, November 18th. We are leaving America. The one we saw. For there are as many Americas as there are people observing it. Everyone makes their own discovery, and, mark my words, they only make it for themselves. We are quite ready to see this city and this country as a huge shop whose slogan might be, as we read on the front of a real shop: “If you don’t know what you want, come in because we have it.” But it would be too easy to confine America to its strangeness. This way of life, so often criticized but so often imitated, is the human art of subjugating to their powers what they thought was their fate. It might be the fate of the whole of Europe in 20 years. And if it is to be ours, perhaps it was worthwhile giving it due consideration.

The film’s strongest card is the film music score by Michel Legrand, whose probably best known here for his work on the original version of ‘The Thomas Crown Affair,’ as well as the James Bond film ‘Never Say Never Again.’  Through the sheer variance of the score, from lush romance evoking George Gershwin and very appropriate for this documentary film featuring a closing shot of Manhattan, to the light and playful whimsy, we are treated to a series of almost tone poems.

By the way, something which has always puzzled residents of the United Kingdom in ‘delivering’ newspapers by throwing them in the general direction of a house while cycling past. ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN’ is woven together quite nicely; the transitions from one subject to another are crafted carefully and it all feels seamless. It is colourful as you would expect something from this era to be. There’s an air of nostalgia, but also a tenderness and fascination for a country which François Reichenbach obviously loves and is loath to criticise.

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Blu-ray Image Quality – ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN’ is presented to us by Arrow Academy with very nice 1080p image and enhanced with a 2.35:1 (Anamorphic) aspect ratio and the documentary was shot in 35mm and the image transfer will let you get lost in the image details that is clear and precise and the colours have a certain look to the image as you would expect something to be expected to be filmed in the 1960s era and the transitions from one subject to another are crafted carefully and it all feels seamless. It is also helped in the creation of the brilliant cinematography for this documentary; you get an air of nostalgia, but also a tenderness and fascination for a country which François Reichenbach was so good at portraying America at the time of filming and again shows off the brilliant images so beautiful and really draws you in on what you are viewing. Please Note: Playback Region B/2: This will not play on most Blu-ray players sold in North America, Central America, South America, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Learn more about Blu-ray region specifications.

Blu-ray Audio Quality – ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN’ is brought to you via by Arrow Academy and the 1.0 LPCM Mono Audio has no real issues and is clear enough, though the inevitable range restrictions are evident in the audio narration and some of the louder elements of the composed music score.

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Blu-ray Special Features and Extras:

High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation

Original uncompressed French mono audio: Something about this gives Jean Cocteau’s deadpan audio commentary delivery a soothing audio quality.

Newly translated English subtitles

Special Feature: F for French: Philip Kemp on ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN’ [2020] [1080p] [1.78:1] [23:34] This is a new video appreciation of the film ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN’ by author and critic Philip Kemp and recorded exclusively for Arrow Academy in March 2020, in which the amiable and hugely knowledgeable author and critic examines the film and the career of its too-often side-lined director. Philip Kemp says that anyone who is into French “New Wave” films that burst on the scene in the late 1950s, that revolutions French Cinema, will recognise the style of this landmark documentary. Philip Kemp talks about the famous French directors that really put the French cinema on the map, but also mentions particular French directors like John Roche, Bruno François-Boucher, Philippe Garrel and of course someone who was not so well known was François Reichenbach especially outside France who usually made long documentaries, who was born in 1921 and also wrote some songs especially for two artists and they were Bridget Bardot and Edith Piaf. François Reichenbach was fascinated by America and American society and when he went to New York he purchased a 16mm BOLEX cine camera and eventually made 70 documentary films, and again filmed all aspect of American life, which he personally found fascinating. Philip Kemp also talks about the more interesting documentaries François Reichenbach made, which were as follows:

‘Houston, Texas’ [Short Film] [1956] Documentary on the American city of Houston in Texas. A report on this extraordinary boom town that owes its fortune to oil. Takes a close examination of the trial and execution of a convicted murderer.

‘Les Marines’ [1957] A French documentary which explores the training and lives of United States Marines which recorded the brutal treatment of Marine recruits in boot camp.

‘Le Grand Sud’ [1956] Sadly, I have no details on this documentary film.

‘Un Coeur Gros Comme Ça’ [1957] Semi-documentary about a young black boxer named Abdoullah Faye and his life in Paris. While working in a factory, he is training for a boxing match. He is an endearing guy, a bit naive, but as the title reads, Abdoullah Faye's really bighearted.

‘Sex O’Clock USA’ [1976] The director François Reichenbach films common people in sexual related situations, in a variety of true, gripping, funny, dramatic, disturbing, imaginative ways – in the country than facing a big moral change in their view of adult, public and sexual life.

‘13 Jours en France’ [1968] This is a documentary about the 1968 Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble. Over the course of 13 days in February, Olympic teams from countries around the world compete in winter sports, and this film captures much of the exciting action. Jean-Claude Killy, an alpine skier from France, is the star of the games, winning three gold medals, and his triumphs are extensively documented during the film.

‘Medicine Ball Caravan’ [1971] Documentary of a 154-person bus and truck tour that set out to spread the gospel of flower power to the hinterlands of the U.S.A.

‘La Douceur Du Village’ [1963] Documentary about a small village near Le Mans, commented by the village school-teacher.

Philip Kemp gives a bit of background on director François Reichenbach, especially relating to all his documentaries, especially in America and comments on how did François Reichenbach gain official access to the jails, military encampment and so forth, well François Reichenbach said that he could gain access to all kinds of facilities in America, by showing them lots of nude photographs of Bridget Bardot.

Philip Kemp also talks about how director François Reichenbach fell in love with Mexico, its people and its culture and made a couple of documentaries in that country and they are as follows:

‘Une Passion Mexicaine’ [1992] Sadly, I have no details on this documentary film.

‘La Mort Joyeuse’ [1963] Sadly, I have no details on this documentary film.

As we near the end of this special feature, Philip Kemp informs us that when François Reichenbach (3 July 1921 – 2 February 1993) passed away, a special obituary was written about this French director and it went as follows: “We have lost a remarkable man, and a great director who provided the documentary genre with its lesser known nobility. In Limoges City in France where he grew up, near his Grandfather’s chateau, where a street has been named after him, the real François Reichenbach.” At this point, Philip Kemp ends his very special feature on a really special French documentary director François Reichenbach and is well worth viewing.

Special Feature: Image Gallery [1960] [1080p] [1.78:1] [1:13] Here we get to view a rolling gallery that gets advanced of  nine still images every 8 seconds and was taken during the filming of ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN,’ including one that would count as a behind-the-scenes shot. We also get snapshots from the documentary filming of different scenes of America, including showing how he mounted the 35mm onto a convertible car to get those great driving shots.

BONUS: Reversible Blu-ray cover featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ignatius Fitzpatrick.

PLUS: FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Beautiful printed illustrated collector’s 24 page booklet featuring new writing on the film by Caspar Salmon entitled UNUSUAL AMERICA  who is a film and culture journalist living in London, who specializes in European Arthous and LBGTO + cinema. The booklet is also includes ABOUT THE TRANSFER; PROCUTION CREDITS and SPECIAL THANKS. As a bonus it has some wonderful colourful images from the documentary film.

Finally, with the film documentary ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN’ nothing prepares for the violence of the John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King assassinations, or the Vietnam War, which dominated the next decade. But thanks to François Reichenbach’s uncritical approach, we start to appreciate the fault lines of a society which would explode not long afterwards. Forget the white-washing commentary; just take it all in with your eyes. François Reichenbach offers a cinematic and valuable heads-up for what was to come. The French New Wave cinema movement featured the work of many directors, whose names remain familiar today, including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Alain Resnais. Their films are rightly still influential, but some of the film-makers on the periphery of the group are just as intriguing – the likes of Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy and Louis Malle spring to mind. After watching ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN,’ François Reichenbach should be added to the list. In a time of poverty in Western Europe (the film was released in 1960), this work provides a time capsule of an era where American consumerism seemed aspirational to sections of the developed world, and, as such, ‘AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN’ is a fascinating watch. Highly Recommended!

Andrew C. Miller – Your Ultimate No.1 Film Aficionado 
Le Cinema Paradiso 
United Kingdom

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