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MOVIE REVIEW

Crazy Horse

Behind the ‘oooh la la’:Director examines the details that make Crazy Horse nightclub move

Crazy Horse In Frederick Wiseman's "Crazy Horse," we get to know the names of the dancers but not much else about them. (Antoine Poupel)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 27, 2012
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How do you turn a naked woman into a nude? “Crazy Horse,’’ the 39th film from the legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman, prowls the Paris nightclub of the title looking for answers. It’s the third in Wiseman’s dance movies (the other two being 1995’s “Ballet’’ and 2009’s “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet’’) and the first to explore the more eroticized forms of the medium.

Wiseman, of course, could take his camera into a down-market strip club and come out with a film about the mechanics of titillation rather than titillation itself. It’s not that “Crazy Horse’’ isn’t a turn-on, just that sex is beside the point for this filmmaker. His abiding interest is in the ways that human beings work together, his famous fly-on-the-wall shooting style revealing the constant struggle to connect and create. Wiseman’s are the movies to show to the aliens when they arrive.

The Crazy Horse, on 12 Avenue George V, was founded in 1951 by Alain Bernardin; the club recently celebrated its 60th anniversary of providing upscale nude entertainment to tourists and other interested parties. (Like the Statue of Liberty or Bunker Hill, it seems less frequented by locals.) Typical Wiseman, “Crazy Horse’’ gives us no back story or historical context, little in the way of voice-overs or talking heads. We simply watch as choreographer Philippe Decouflé, hired in 2008 to bring the show up to date, rehearses dancers, works with costumiers, and hashes things out with general manager Andrée Deissenberg and the club’s board.

What becomes apparent soon enough is that the numbers are showing their age. One generation’s cutting-edge sexuality is the next generation’s schlock, and routines like “Baby Buns’’ or the sci-fi soft-core lesbian fantasy (complete with space helmets) are dated in their once-daring hubba-hubba. Decouflé begs his employers to shut the club down for several weeks so that he can rehearse and streamline his new ideas, but for all the talk of art - and everyone’s French, so there’s a lot of it - business trumps everything else.

Wiseman is fascinated by process, in this case the process of manufacturing desire. So many scenes concern the minutiae of rehearsals, of bustiers and corsets. The insights into human behaviors and values of attractiveness bubble up naturally, often with unintentional humor. A long sequence in which Decouflé auditions new dancers - the women standing in a row wearing G strings and high heels - includes instructions like “Be pretty, relaxed, classy. And push your buttocks out.’’

Office politics intrude, as always. The club hires a hyperbolic artistic director, Ali Mahdavi, to second-guess Decouflé; young and very gay, he never stops chattering about the erotic philosophy behind it all. Slowly, though, we see the choreographer’s visions come together on stage, still dancing along the edge of kitsch but visually arresting and withholding as much as they reveal. One overheard comment could serve as the club’s motto: “The ultimate thing is to seduce, to suggest, without offering oneself.’’

Perhaps that’s why the women themselves remain unknowable. We learn that many of them are trained in ballet and modern dance, come from Russia or Eastern Europe, are uncomfortable touching each other on stage. We see them cracking up at a Bolshoi blooper reel - slapstick for dancers - and learn most of their names by the time the film is done. But what goes on in their heads isn’t part of Wiseman’s brief, even if he might have made a more complete movie with their input. Maybe that’s the point; no one here thinks to ask the dancers’ opinion. It would be like asking the clay what it feels like to become a vase.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@tyburr.

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CRAZY HORSE Directed by:

Frederick Wiseman

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 134 minutes

Unrated: (as R:

creative nudity)

In French, with subtitles

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