Color, 1960, 90 mins. 46 secs.
Directed by François Reichenbach
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
A cinematic jack of all trades, director and prolific documentarian François Reichenbach came up through the ranks with the help of his cousin, producer Pierre Braunberger, and is perhaps best known today for his multiple associations with Orson Welles including F for Fake, the 1968 doc Portrait: Orson Welles, and his involvement in the limited series Around the World with Orson Welles. His impish side can be found in the colorful documentary America as Seen by a Frenchman (originally titled L'Amérique insolite), which found him bringing in such names as Chris Marker (La Jetée) and Jean Cocteau for a look at the stranger side of the U.S.A. The result is a fascinating precursor to 1962's big hit Mondo Cane and its many successors, featuring some of the more lurid aspects that would define the mondo film but filtered with the cheery sensibility of the spectacular Cinerama spectacles that had been entertaining audiences for the past eight years or so.
As the narration by Cocteau explains, America is a place where "everywhere you go you will find surprises, excesses, marvelous disorderliness, an instinct to disobey the rules, a disobedience which spares us the platitudes and keeps alive the strange asymmetrical beauty of the human voice." From there it's a whirlwind tour through a Santa Monica beach photo shoot, hula hoops, poultry processing, baseball, horse diving, para-sailing, racial segregation, paper boys, ice cream, parades, juvenile twins, judo lessons, beauty contests, the penal system, childbirth, surfing, bubble gum, suburbs, nudie photography, a soap box derby in Ohio, cute dogs running amuck on Fire Island, a drive-up wedding chapel, tepee motels, bikers, an L.A. striptease college where women learn "the art of frustration," and of course, skyscrapers.
Shot over the course of eighteen months around the U.S., Reichenbach's film is both a skewed love letter to the New World and a wry critique of its eccentricities as only a European familiar with scores of myopic tourists could provide. It's never less than engaging and frequently amusing, with even its more outrageous elements (including a surprising amount of skin for a 1960 film) coming off as playful and completely harmless. The whole thing is accentuated by a deliciously perky, jazz-flavored score by the great Michel Legrand, who was still a newcomer at the time and jumped straight from this into Jacques Demy's Lola and Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman Is a Woman. As for Reichenbach, he would go on to become a prolific director of many Scopitones (early music videos) including the phenomenal "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Comic Strip" for Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg, as well as the director of a pair of semi-sequels to this film, 1976's Sex O' Clock U.S.A. and 1983's La Japon insolite.
Barely distributed outside of France, America as Seen by a Frenchman made its English-friendly home video debut from Arrow Video on Blu-ray (under its Arrow Academy imprint) in the U.S. and U.K. in 2020. The transfer looks ravishing throughout with those vibrant hues particular to '50s and '60s film stock, including some eye-popping shades of orange, red and blue for the interior scenes. The French LPCM mono audio also sounds pristine and comes with optional, newly-translated English subtitles. The one big extra here is "F for French" (23m54s) with author and critic Philip Kemp offering a useful guide to the film and its creator (including his wealthy childhood and early gigs as a successful songwriter, museum advisor, and art critic) as well as some larger context within the French New Wave. An image gallery (1m13s) of production stills is also included, and the first pressing comes with an insert booklet featuring liner notes by Caspar Salmon.
Reviewed on July 4, 2020