‘Crazy Horse’ Review: Frederick Wiseman Explores Paris Cabaret’s Nude Chic

by on December 12th, 2010
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Paris’ famed erotic cabaret club, Crazy Horse, is no common strip club. It’s more of an artful show of nudity, along the lines of Cirque du Soleil, with impressive choreography; interesting costumes; exotic lighting; and shapely, bare women. Revelers of nightlife would probably rank it a must-see for travelers behind the Eiffel Tower or The Louvre. For his film “Crazy Horse,” acclaimed cinema vérité documentarian Frederick Wiseman spent 10 weeks at the club and presents viewers with an inside look at the rehearsals; staging; creative squabbles; and, of course, the performances needed to bring a show to life.

Wiseman, 82, is a master in the documentary arts and has always had a thoughtful eye for his subjects. With his 46 years in filmmaking (he had studied to be a lawyer), Wiseman has made 37 documentaries and two feature films. Among his well-known docs are “Titicut Follies,” “Hospital,” “Welfare,” “Public Housing,” and his trilogy of French documentaries — “La Comedie Francaise ou l’Amour Joue,” “La Danse-Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris,” and now “Crazy Horse.”

What’s amazing about Wiseman’s craft is that it seems seamless; it’s as if the viewers are flies on the wall observing a specific occupation or an ordinary, everyday experience. One is totally immersed in the viewing experience.

Crazy Horse was founded by Alain Bernardin in 1951 and proclaims its nude shows represents chic art. Wiseman captures that. “Crazy Horse” follows the travails in putting up a new revue called “DESIRS,” staged by celebrated French choreographer Philippe Decoufle. The film opens on a shadow puppet show that includes a devil, then jumps to a blond dancer recording orgasmic breathing that will then be used in the show. Following the women backstage as they put on their makeup and costumes, we then cut to rehearsals and performances, like “Baby Buns,” with artistic polka dot lighting over the women’s specific parts, or the eponymous final number.

Yet along with the evocative staging and rehearsals, it’s the backstage meetings with the club owners, the costume fittings, the practicing of numbers in the hallways, and even the actual club setup for a show that makes the film fascinating. Being a French cabaret show, buckets of champagne are arranged on every table and a photographer snaps photos of the club’s visitors. In a humorous scene, Wiseman films in close-ups, individual photos being printed with the various expressions of the visitors on display. It’s akin to the photos being snapped at a theme park ride, ready to be bought as the thrilled guests exit.

But first-timers into Wiseman’s documentary worlds should note that his films fall into the observational category. His documentaries capture events as they happen, often in real-time. There aren’t a lot of on-camera interviews where the director also plays the part of interviewer, like with Errol Morris (“Tabloid”). And that’s what makes Frederick Wiseman’s films, like “Crazy Horse,” authentic cinema vérité, or, in English, “cinema truth.” Audiences will believe they’ve actually been part of the staging of the “DESIRS” show at the Parisian cabaret.

“Crazy Horse” is 128 minutes and not rated. It opens in Los Angeles for an exclusive one-week run at the Nuart Theatre before expanding to select cities.

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