An outsider's perspective, like that of de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, can cast our country into a sharper relief than we could otherwise obtain. This is what makes the best French documentaries about America so illuminating and so useful.
Here are five of the best examples of the genre currently available to stream online.
Title: The Sixth Side of the Pentagon
What it's about: In 1967, as the American anti-war movement becomes more radical and more engaged with the currents of the international left, 100,000 protestors descend on Washington, D.C. for a tumultuous, often violent confrontation with the powers that be. Some of them -- the so-called Yippies and Abbie Hoffman -- are intent on "levitating" the Pentagon in order to exorcize it of its Satanic power. (A pentagon is not far removed from a pentagram, after all.)
The French perspective: Chris Marker, a master of the essay film, is probably best known for La Jetée (1962) and San Soleil (1982). The filmmaker spent much of his career ensconced within the international Far Left, which took him from North Korea to Cuba and, in 1967, the United States, where he was on hand to document the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam protest, and the attempt to levitate the Pentagon. With his keen photographer's eye, he captures a watershed moment in the history of American radicalism, and links it up with the broader international trends of the time.
Where it's streaming: Amazon.
Title: God's Country
What it's about: The project started in 1979, then was abandoned, and was eventually completed in 1985. Louis Malle's God's Country follows the shifting economic fortunes of our very own Glencoe, Minnesota, from Carter to Reagan. Once prosperous, by the mid-'80s over-production has blighted Minnesota farm country, leading to permanent changes in Glencoe's economic structure, a process documented here with great compassion.
The French perspective: Louis Malle was a prolific director of both documentaries and feature films, and his decades-long career can be roughly divided into French and American phases. God's Country (1985), a profile of an economy and a culture in transition, hearkens back to explorations of similar themes that Malle initiated in documentaries like Phantom India (1969) and Humain, Trop Humaine (1973). In training his lens on these diverse locales, Malle gets a good sense of specific cultures while simultaneously evoking the universals that make us human.
Where it's streaming: Hulu.
Title: Poto and Cabengo
What it's about: In the mid-70s, Californian twin sisters Grace and Virginia Kennedy, known to each other as "Poto" and "Cabengo," garnered media attention when it was reported that they communicated with each other in a language of their own invention. French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin investigates the girls' unique bond in his first American film, and explores the origins of the Kennedys' language, a phenomenon dubbed cryptophasia, while following their tutors' efforts to teach them Standard English.
The French perspective: Jean-Pierre Gorin rose to prominence as a member of the radical Marxist Dziga Vertov group, where he worked closely with Jean-Luc Godard on a number of propaganda films. By the late '70s, Gorin's political passions had cooled. He immigrated to the bastion of bourgeois imperialism, the United States, where he made several documentary films investigating various American subcultures, of which Poto and Cabengo is probably the best. It is striking to watch Gorin, for whom English was a second language, struggle to communicate with the Kennedy girls, for whom English was equally awkward. With everyone speaking English as a lingua franca, Poto and Cabengo presents a skeptical interrogation of language that would make Gorin's former collaborator Jean-Luc Godard proud.
Where it's streaming: Hulu.
Title: From the Other Side
What it's about: In From the Other Side, Chantal Akerman presents a contemplative, immersive look at the plight of undocumented migrants crossing the border from Mexico to the U.S. Interspersed with lingering shots of the desolate landscape of the Arizona desert and economically depressed Mexican communities, the film follows Belgian Akerman (who, for the purposes of this post, we're going to count, as he's a Francophone) interviews Mexicans who have lost loved ones during the perilous crossing, and Americans of the Lou Dobbs-variety who fear an "invasion."
The French (Belgian) perspective: Chantal Akerman's cinema crosses back and forth between Europe and New York, where she began her career with the classic exploration of expat alienation, Je tu il elle (1974). Since then, her films have continued to grapple with the displaced and the marginalized, whether they be Belgian housewives (Jeanne Dielman), expat filmmakers (News from Home), or, in the case of From the Other Side, Mexican migrants desperately trying to make a future for themselves in the United States. This film is a shining example of the curiosity and compassion that have defined Akerman's body of work.
Where it's streaming: Amazon.
Title: Is the Man who is Tall Happy?
What it's about: French filmmaker Michel Gondry (of the "Whimsy School" of cinema, best known for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) sits down with American linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky for an in-depth discussion about language, cognition, and the role of the intellectual in public life. To illustrate Chomsky's ideas, Gondry provides us with quirky animations to convey such abstruse concepts as universal grammar. To make things even more trippy, the interviews are animated.
The French perspective: Gondry comes to Chomsky with the enthusiasm of an intelligent novice in the realm of linguistics, and their dialogue is very much a negotiation over meaning in the abstract (Chomsky's linguistic theories) and meaning in a very practical sense (how to convey these theories to Gondry). To further complicate matters Gondry, much like Jean-Pierre Gorin before him, speaks an imperfect English, and so the valiant struggle for comprehension is mutual. In the midst of this back-and-forth, Chomsky is forced to present his ideas in novel fashion, and together the American linguist and the French filmmaker give these ideas a meaning that both of them -- and the viewer -- can understand.
Where it's streaming: Netflix, Amazon.