Film reviews

America as Seen by a Frenchman – Blu-ray Review

Released on June 1st in the UK, a Blu-ray release of 1960’s America as Seen by a Frenchman by François Reichenbach arrives with scant bonus features, but a fine, clean transfer, that is bright, and maintains much of its original grain and charm.

To start with those features: author and critic Philip Kemp presents a c. 25 minute appreciation of the film, which puts the director’s place as part of the French New Wave into context.  He argues that his status as relatively forgotten is due almost entirely to his focus on documentary filmmaking, contextualising his interest in America by pointing to the short films he had produced earlier, one of which (along with a later work) focussed on Houston, Texas.  He takes the viewer through his later career (such as F for Fake, created with Orson Welles) and the eclectic, almost random selection of topics he chose to focus upon.  As a bonus feature, it is short and sweet, but it is bang up-to-date, having been shot in March of this year, and serves as a useful primer for those unfamiliar with the director and indeed French New Wave in general.  The set also includes a photo gallery.

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As for the feature – known in its native land as L’Amérique Insolite – Reichenbach expresses a wish to show what he’d seen during 18 months of filming in all areas of the United States during 1958 and ’59. He references a juxtaposition between the country’s strict rules, but its clear freedoms. He notes the eternal desire for youth that exists in the country – a clear theme of the work.

From there we are taken through a piece of work that could charitably be described as impressionistic, though it could also be considered haphazard in places.  Beginning at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, we see all flavours of America, with a number of clear stand-out features.  The film focuses very quickly on outdoor advertising photo shoots around the country, and describes marketing as the pursuit of beauty.

Through a children’s soap box derby in Akron, Ohio, car and motorbike races, we see both the American love of the vehicle, and a size and scale of association that is clearly fascinating to the filmmaker – the children’s derby looking closer to Le Mans in scale than an event for kids.  Even when, towards the end of the film, he focuses on some young criminals in Nevada, he paints the tendency to gang membership as a nostalgia for association.  Throughout the film, he depicts a relatively carefree US, where young people love to dance, children enjoy large and indulgent ice creams, and people associate around food, sport and dance.

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

If America was a person, this work would be considered hagiography.  This is an image of a country from the perspective of a European in the late 1950s having lived through a desolate post-war period in France, and clearly enjoying the climate and consumerism of a country that just appears to him to be far younger in its outlook.  The sole sop to any degree of criticism of the United States is the observation that the Wild West theme parks of the US present a cleansed version of the nation’s history.  Aside from this, when we see a dirt poor, predominantly black area – everyone is dancing, and the police are a helpful neighbourhood presence.  Quite whether the country of America as Seen by a Frenchman still exists – or ever existed outside of one man’s perceptions – is debatable.  What he shows is valid, but it reflects only what he is seeing: not the wider picture.

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In a time of poverty in Western Europe (the film was releasedin 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.

The look at post-war comparative excess, served up to children with no real sense of what life has ahead, plays a little like a distant cousin to Michael Apted’s Up series in places.  If the film has a flaw beyond the avoidance of any of the social issues of the time, it is in its narrative being entirely what we take from it.  Long scenes of young adults and teenagers at the beach, dancing, have a certain charm, but towards the end this starts to feel like watching an old home movie of someone else’s family sharing fun times and in-jokes we are not – and were never – a part of.  As such, it is an interesting look at a country the depiction of which is entirely subjective, despite being filmed for posterity, and reflective of a seemingly more carefree  time – if, again, subjectively so – in recent American history.

America as Seen by a Frenchman is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.

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