Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman takes us behind the curtain of the Paris nightclub famous for its scantily-clad dancers
Early on in “Crazy Horse,” we see two women engaging in elaborate gymnastics inside a spinning hoop, while ornate stained-glass patterns are projected onto their nearly-nude torsos. Midway through the act, the camera cuts to a computer screen and the lighting technician who’s keeping track of the mechanics of the act.
And that’s what you get in this latest documentary from the legendary Frederick Wiseman (“Titicut Follies,” “Public Housing”) — glamorous, scantily-clad girls performing onstage and the behind-the-scenes toil that makes everything onstage look so sexy and effortless.
Wiseman’s documentary style is about as fly-on-the-wall as you can get — there’s never narration, or interviews, or music. He takes his camera inside hospitals and housing projects and the Paris Opera ballet and department stores and boxing gyms and just shoots. Whatever the camera sees, the audience sees, and we absorb the atmosphere of the location without being explicitly told anything.
This time out, however, the movie has music, because the club has music — rather than the American version of an erotic night out, which features a bored stripper grinding against a pole to Warrant’s “Cherry Pie,” this is a theatrical extravaganza with elaborate choreography, acrobatics, costume changes, and intricate lighting. (And, yes, breasts.)
“Crazy Horse” also features interviews, but only because its subjects were being interviewed by other people when Wiseman happened to be there. The Crazy Horse show, we are told by its director during a production meeting, draws not just the usual tourist crowd but also artists, celebrities and intellectuals. So when the club launches a new show, “Désirs,” journalists show up to speak to the show’s producer and its artistic director.
The people we don’t hear from in “Crazy Horse” are the dancers, which is somewhat frustrating, since they’ve no doubt got the best stories. Wiseman’s methodology favors the vocal, so we hear more from the choreographers and the directors than we do from the actual performers, and that somewhat throws off the balance of what we learn about the goings-on here.
But there is a revealing moment in which they gather backstage to laugh at a reel of Russian ballet bloopers — these ladies are, let there be no doubt, extremely talented performers, and we see an audition in which very skilled dancers try out to become Crazy Horse girls. Whatever baggage puritanical American audiences put onto women who dance without tops on is evidently absent here.
So when we’re not watching the glittery stage show, we see the nuts and bolts of how it all gets put together, from the wigmakers silently plying their trade with laserlike focus to the female costume designer telling a dancer that they have to switch her skirt because the light is catching her in the wrong way and not making her buttocks as round as they might be.
Several of the artists involved with the Crazy Horse discuss the fact that this is that rare nude nightclub show that women enjoy as much as men, and that its chic approach to nudity allows women “access to the keys to eroticism.” The same can be said for Wiseman’s film — it’s not going to tell you much about the decades-old history of the club, but it’s a glimpse into a showgirl’s world that viewers of all genders can enjoy equally.