Crazy Horse: Film Review

Revealing, impressionistic peek at the creation of a new show at Paris's famed erotic dancing club.

The veteran filmmaker's revealing, impressionistic documentary traces the creation of a new show at Paris's famed club, writes Todd McCarthy.

The very first scene in Frederick Wiseman's very first documentary, 39 films and 44 years ago, focused on a song-and-dance number being performed on a cabaret-sized stage. Granted, the entertainers were male inmates at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminal insane in Massachusetts, the subjects of the shattering and depressing Titicut Follies. Much of the running time of Crazy Horse is spent watching performers cavort on a small stage as well, but this time they are the virtually naked young women with perfect bodies who star in the most celebrated and venerable exotic dance club in the world, the eponymous club at 12, Avenue George V in Paris.

On can scarcely blame the great veteran filmmaker for being tempted by a better looking cast and more congenial location at this stage in his career, as he's certainly earned it. Much as he did in his two previous dance films, Ballet and La danse-Le ballet de l'Opera de Paris, Wiseman has perceptively revealed the process and the result of an intricate group artistic enterprise. Already shown at festivals in Telluride, Venice and Toronto and upcoming in San Sebastian, New York, London and elsewhere, the film opens throughout France on Oct. 5 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the boite.

There are many things Wiseman's film is not: Eschewing, as usual for him, any voice-over or historical information, it offers no background about the launching of "Le Crazy" in 1951 or its colorful founder and longtime operator Alain Bernardin, nor are there clips of what the shows were like in the old days. There is no information about what has taken place since the Bernardin family sold its stake in the enterprise in 2005, which leaves one guessing about the existing power structure, how long the people onscreen have been there and what the pecking order is. There's no backstory at all, which proves frustrating when the dynamics of running the club and creative control are at issue, which is often.

Most disappointingly, the dancers never get their close-ups; whether by choice or by some enforced arrangement, Wiseman doesn't approach the gorgeous women to give them the chance to tell their side of what it's like to work at the Crazy Horse, if this is something they dreamed about, how it effects the rest of their lives, how people perceive them and so on. We observe the technical, operational and artistic sides of what goes into putting on this particular show, but never from the performers' point of view.

What Wiseman seizes, however, is the opportunity to create an impressionistic portrait of a highly rarified realm, a tiny sanctuary from real life where the refined expression of sensuality, eroticism and, as per the name of the new show the film documents, desire is the be-all and end-all. Beautifully wrought images capture the dancing, the costumes, the simple but elegant and settings and, of course, the exquisitely shaped girls, very often enhanced by striking and sophisticated lighting techniques and backed by generally catchy songs and techno rhythms. One could simply experience the film as a warm, gentle, seductive shower of similar but ever-changing images and be happy with that.

But the film is divided up between the presentation of finished numbers and the demonstration of what it takes to get there, from the selection of costumes and the brushing of wigs to the taking of reservations and the setting out of champagne on each table. We see rehearsals, in which we learn, among other things, that the girls don't much like touching one another during the numbers.

Then there are the artistic strategy sessions, in which the choreographer, identified only as Philippe in conversation (but who is, in fact, Philippe Decoufle, a highly respected dancer and choreographer hired in 2008 and assigned to stage the new "Desirs" show, which opened on Sept. 21, 2009) tries to convince his bosses that they should shut down for a while to give him time to exclusively work out the fresh production. It doesn't seem that he succeeded, but it's never entirely clear. Artistic director Ali Mahdavi (similarly unidentified) goes on and on philosophizing in a very French and almost amusing way about the philosophical and emotional aspects of female erotic dance.

There's a wonderful throwaway sequence in which the girls, backstage, watch hilarious bloopers from Russian ballet performances showing great dancers staggering around and unintentionally sliding offstage. In an absorbing audition interlude, the film ironically offers more individualization of contenders than it ever does of those already in the company. The ideal Crazy body is easy to describe: Uniform height, nice legs, protruding roundish derriere, smallish breasts and trim physique. The tryouts make it clear that overly vulgar or rock-style dancing is out-of-place here, as would be the more obvious and voluptuous bodies of strippers. Reportedly, most of the dancers at the club these days are from Russia and Eastern Europe but, since they're allowed scarcely a word, it's a rumor the film does not verify.

If you're not taken with, or have some objection to, watching beautiful girls dancing in their birthday suits, this could be a long sit, more than it already is at 128 minutes. But even brief exposure to the artistic impulse and visual creativity behind the numbers here confirms the appeal the Crazy Horse has for both men and women, something underscored by the predominance of couples in the audience. Both the film and what is captures are striking and true, which means Wiseman has traveled both very far and not at all from Titicut Follies.

Production: Zipporah Films
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Producers: Frederick Wiseman, Pierre Olivier Bardet
Director of photography: John Davey
Editor: Frederick Wiseman
128 minutes