America As Seen By A Frenchman
At the end of the 1950s, celebrated French documentarian François Reichenbach (F for Fake, 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 Frenchman, 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 newborns in incubators, like products on an assembly line – all these weird and wondrous sights, and more, are captured, sans jugement, by 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).
Titled L’Amérique insolite – literally “unusual America” – in its native tongue, America As Seen by a Frenchman lovingly renders the various eccentricities of Americana circa the mid-twentieth century, and proves the old adage that reality really is stranger than fiction.
Arrow Academy presents François Reichenbach’s first feature film, America as Seen by a Frenchman, on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
Arrow’s notes only indicate they were supplied with a high-definition master from Les Films du Jeudi with no further information behind it, but if I had to venture a guess, based on how absolutely amazing this looks, it most certainly comes from a new restoration, at least done in 2K (though if someone told me 4K I wouldn’t doubt it) and sourced from a negative. It looks astoundingly good in just about every way: it’s highly detailed, crisp, and almost spotless. It retains a wonderful film-like texture thanks to the clean and natural rendering of the film’s grain, which never looks noisy, and this further aids in the delivery of the finer details in the image. A couple of moments look a bit fuzzy, but these rare moments are clearly source-related, nothing to do with the digital encode, but at its best the level of detail can be just so astounding that I swear I could even make out individual granules of sand in some of the beach shots. The film has a lot of room to breathe on this disc (there is less than 2 hours’ worth of material on the whole disc) and the bitrate stays in the 30s and 40s, so that may play into it, but whatever the reason this is one of the strongest encodes I’ve probably ever seen.
There are a handful of marks that remain, but it's easy to overllok. The only real drawback more than likely comes down to a decision made during original restoration process, where a heavy yellow tint has been applied. It’s incredibly strong and the film has a jaundiced look to it. This also impacts the black levels in a negative way, causing crush in some low-lit scenes. It’s the only real issue, though still an incredible shame for a presentation that is otherwise exceptional.
The monaural soundtrack is presented in lossless 1.0 PCM. Narration makes up most of the dialogue, with some dialogue within the film coming through faintly from time to time (though I suspect this "in-film" dialogue was dubbed in after the fact). Dialogue wise, including the narration, it all comes off one-note and flat, with little fidelity behind it. Michel Legrand’s score, on the other hand, sounds great, with some more life and range to it, lifting the track up above your average mono presentaiton.
After a great audio/video presentation the release insanely underwhelms with its supplements, only offering one significant one outside of a small image gallery (with 9 images, two of which are the same, just tinted differently): an interview with critic Philip Kemp, who spends 23-minutes talking about Reichenbach and his work, which in turn delves a bit into the reasons why the Nouvelle Vague director has been somewhat forgotten. Kemp covers the film, Reichenbach's shorts about America, his television work (mostly documentaries around music) and how he is tied up in Orson Welles’ F for Fake (this supplement’s title, F for French, is a nod to that film). Kemp does a really great job with his interview (and the included booklet with a short essay by Caspar Salmon focuses more on the film itself) but I’m surprised at the lack of much else. There is a lot of talk around his other films, with Kemp making a special mention of Reichenbach’s Les Marines, so I would have half-expected one or two of them to show up here at least. To be fair, it’s possible the rights were not available, or (more than likely) pricing was too prohibitive. Either way, it’s a shame.
The lack of special features makes this release less appealing admittedly, but the presentation, outside of that unfortunate yellow tint, is really something to behold.