Film Reviews

Life's an Erotic Cabaret in Frederick Wiseman's "Crazy Horse"

Belting out the anthem "Les Filles du Crazy," half a dozen women sing of themselves: "They are the soldiers of the erotic army." The military metaphor proves apt for this spellbinding documentary on the Crazy Horse, Paris' classy nudie cabaret, founded in 1951. The dancers' taut, perfectly proportioned bodies suggest Amazonian strength, and the battles between art and commerce at the nightclub drain even the most seasoned choreographers.

The film dispenses with the usual documentary signposts, such as narration, identifying intertitles, and talking-head interviews. It's also dominated by, in the words of one costume designer, "nice, round buttocks." Rumps are constantly glorified at the Crazy, as evident in one of the first numbers, "Baby Buns," and in this directive to a group of auditioners: "Be pretty, classy, relaxed, don't stress out — and stick out your buttocks."

The ass-thrusting and -swaying is part of a revue in which the erotic dancers are instructed when to deploy a retiré or a saut de chat; that many of them have been trained in ballet is apparent not only in their graceful, precise movements but also in the catty glee the women (especially the several Russians in the troupe) share backstage when watching a Bolshoi blooper reel.

"We're supposedly the best chic nude show in the world," says the slightly exasperated, bespectacled choreographer, Philippe Decouflé. The offstage drama, as in La Danse, is played out in meetings, during which creative visions are thwarted by unyielding business demands. To ensure a "classy premiere" for his show "Désirs," Philippe asks that the club be closed for a few days to clean the spotlights. He is firmly shot down by managing director Andrée Deissenberg, who explains that "the shareholders said no." The later arrival of a third player in the mounting of "Désirs," Ali Mahdavi, brought in as an artistic director, highlights Philippe's growing annoyance. The older choreographer can only squirm when Ali oversells their mission during a news interview by rhapsodizing about his "friends who come here and cry when they see such a level of beauty."

The beauty captured at the Crazy — of the performers, their motions, and the mauve, aqua, and marigold scrims that frame their silhouettes — is summed up in Andrée's definition of eroticism: "The ultimate thing is to suggest without offering oneself." Every shot and edit in the film also suggests without overexplaining, allowing a viewer to be lost in pleasure, free to agree with or tweak Andrée's pronouncement.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Melissa Anderson is the senior film critic at the Village Voice, for which she first began writing in 2000. Her work also appears in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.