Arrow Academy: America as Seen by a Frenchman (1960) - Reviewed

Roughly ten years before teaming up with Orson Welles for the enigmatic “documentary” film F for Fake, French auteur François Reichenbach carved out his niche in the French New Wave movement of directors by being among the few to turn his cameras on nonfiction subjects rather than narrative fiction. 

Which brings us to his 1960 documentary favorite America as Seen by a Frenchman, a panoramic promenade through late 1950s Americana and the American landscape.  Already a prolific director of documentary short subject films, America as Seen by a Frenchman was the director’s first feature length project.  With his crew, multiple cinematographers and Dyaliscope 35mm widescreen cameras, Reichenbach’s film proceeds to take viewers on a tour of America with a most European perspective.

Narrated by the great French director Jean Cocteau with voiceover dialogue written by La Jetée director Chris Marker, America as Seen by a Frenchman moves at a leisurely pace while offering various snapshots across America.  Starting in New York crossing the Golden Gate Bridge before moving into the Midwest, northern and southern areas of the nation, the film’s two-hour journey takes the viewer through eighteen months of filming around the country, offering viewers a kaleidoscopic overview of the country’s social landscapes.  Aiding the stunning picturesque vistas is a heavenly score by the great Michel Legrand, somewhere between jazzy and orchestral with frequent choral vocals. 

Something of a naïve but endearing cinematic summer vacation, the film is simultaneously a time capsule of a bygone era of American life while also offering a promise of hope for the future.  Though at times we’re shown peculiar sights such as a prison rodeo, a horse leaping off of a diving board, Disneyland automatons, pie-eating contests and even assembly line workers, overall the accumulation of various wild scenarios form to paint a charming, optimistic vision of America. 

Nostalgic and idealistic, America as Seen by a Frenchman is a welcome antidote to the (at the time) mondo movies being produced by Jacopetti and Prosperi.  Mostly, it’s a trip back through time with an outsider’s take on the land we call home.  Like rifling through a family photo album, Reichenbach’s portrait of America is something of a collection of mostly fond memories.  Yes elements and scenarios are outdated and we’re only given a smidgen of the big picture, but that doesn’t make this little vacation tour as cinema any less charming or enjoyable.

--Andrew Kotwicki