There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance. And they dance quite well, thank you very much. That place is the world famous Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris, and Frederick Wiseman's documentary is the hole in the wall where you can see it all. But don't get too excited - along with the oodles of nearly nude, tightly choreographed performances, there is an unwieldy amount of backstage meandering, heated creative meetings, and shots of any given mundane day-to-day aspects of running a high-end dinner cabaret.
They have their own way of doing things at the Crazy Horse, much to the constant chagrin of then-recently recruited choreographer Philippe Decouflé (who's since landed on his feet with the Cirque du Soleil show Iris). A family business since 1951, the venue prides itself on its status as perhaps the only "respectable" naked girl entertainment establishment in the world. More of a high-end Vegas spectacle of glitz and flesh than a sleazy strip club (although at a glance, it could pass for either), the Crazy Horse attracts a regular throng of thrill-seeking tourist looking to put the ooh-la-la into their Parisian getaway. Never nasty but often playful, provocative taboos such as bondage are only played upon slightly, and that's at the very end of the film. The musical performances are kitschy and corny with a touch of the kinky. It's like Branson with boobies!
American documentarian Frederick Wiseman has had a very long and respected career making his own brand of observational real-life narratives. Don't look for such standard documentary conventions such as on-screen name IDs or talking head interviews. There are interviews in "Crazy Horse", but they are always depicted as such, with the interviewer and even a video camera present in the frame. Such parameters indicate a very intentional method, which is exactly what we're seeing - even it it's easy to mistake for found-footage assemblage.
As rehearsal after rehearsal play out, complete with bossy, vocal directors and sometimes-unenthusiastic stage talent, Wiseman opts from time to time to leer without reservation. Through his lens, a fully clothed choreography session becomes pure voyeurism; the camera remaining fixed on the girls' posteriors in close-up for minutes on end. This sort of thing renders Wiseman not so much a fly on the wall as a cockroach in the corner. Although he's made a career of documenting socially relevant places in all their unblemished reality, one gets the impression that "Crazy Horse" is elderly Wiseman cashing in his lifetime of cred for a chance to shoot lots of footage of naked dancing girls, edit it down to two hours, and call it legitimate cinema.
More innocent and artificial than provocative or out-and-out sexy, the Crazy Horse itself ends up making for only a marginally interesting subject. The honchos argue, the girls rehearse rehearse rehearse, and every now and then, we get to see a full blown finished number, complete with the lights and the audience and the jiggle and the costumes (what there is of them). In perhaps trying to maintain the impersonal glamorous objectification of the cabaret in his film, Wiseman has missed an essential opportunity to humanize the performers themselves. These are classically trained, serious dancers who for whatever reason opt to bare all with so much precision, in time to the music. Just as they are on stage for the tourists, here they are also merely "the girls". Demystified maybe (and only) slightly, but nonetheless as remote as the cheesecake shadow play that is a major part of their show, "Desir". And even still, if, in his examination, Wiseman is asking any questions about what's acceptably erotic and what's not, he's not asking them loudly enough.
The place itself is demystified in terms of process, even though it doesn't need to be: Lights are endlessly tweaked, windows are washed, phones are answered, and fifty of the exact same wine bottles go into fifty different ice buckets and then out to fifty different tables. Scenery is pushed, make-up is applied, and like any tourist trap, photos are taken of every patron, with the option to buy later. They even record their own vocal tracks for the musical numbers. And yet I can't say why doing this type of show for this audience in this venue in this city is so important to all these people. Frederick Wiseman has found that hallowed, crazy place in France where the naked ladies dance, but showing it all without telling a little bit feels like dry leering voyeurism.
- Jim Tudor
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