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Crazy Horse

Paris' famed upscale nudie revue joins the Comedie Francaise and the Paris Opera Ballet to complete Frederick Wiseman's triumvirate of Parisian entertainment institutions in "Crazy Horse."

With: Philippe Decoufle, Ali Mahdavi, Fifi Chachnil. (French, English, Russian dialogue)

Paris’ famed upscale nudie revue joins the Comedie Francaise and the Paris Opera Ballet to complete Frederick Wiseman’s triumvirate of Parisian entertainment institutions in “Crazy Horse.” Since 1951, the cabaret has prided itself on staging “the best chic nude show in the world,” so the combination of dance and the body — two of Wiseman’s chief fascinations — was irresistible to the helmer. Oddly, however, the creative act takes a backseat to the performance, and the pileup of numbers feels repetitive. Fests and theatrical distribs are lining up, but won’t match the arthouse bookings of “La Danse.”

The docu’s catalyst is the Crazy Horse’s new show, directed and choreographed by Philippe Decoufle. Wiseman shows old numbers alongside the new, and the difference is striking: An old-fashioned staging like “Baby Buns,” where pink polka-dots are projected onto the dancers’ naked flesh, has a silly de-eroticized quality that Decoufle is obviously keen on replacing. His style is more modern and arguably more sensual, though he, too, turns the female body into an abstraction whose power to titillate will very much depend on individual viewers’ tastes.

In many cases, numbers are shown with the dancers’ heads cut out of the frame, the focus firmly on torsos and buttocks. Feminists will be outraged by this piecemeal treatment, and at times it’s difficult to tell how much is the actual staging and how much is Wiseman’s viewpoint. An especially hilarious number — equal parts disturbing and funny — has the women dressed in bearskin hats, harnesses and tails attached front and rear, turning them into horse guards and horses all at once.

The helmer’s interest unsurprisingly includes the usual backstage pow-wows, where issues of money, time, costume fittings and the like inform many of the most interesting scenes. Unsurprisingly, they’re also the most human. What’s generally missing here though is a sense of the creative process; rather than sweat-and-tears rehearsals breaking the dances into individual movements, the numbers are largely shown nearly complete. Consequently, there’s little sense of the discipline involved, or the struggle for perfection that makes dance docus so engrossing.

Several times Decoufle and the staff discuss the need for “classy” acts — presumably the narrow strip of thin black fabric covering the women’s pudenda saves the show from vulgarity, though “classy” is stretching it a bit. Such nudity will preclude some smallscreen broadcasts, but in general there’s an innocence to this type of bare-ass display, combined with the mannequin coldness (caught so well by Helmut Newton) of perfect bodies.

Occasional shots of outdoor Paris remind viewers where it’s all taking place, especially necessary since the club is underground and therefore both time and place are skewed. Typically, with a Wiseman docu, even without explanations or direct interviews, he provides a well-rounded look at an institution. Together with his usual ace d.p. John Davey, the helmer makes auds feel as if every nook and cranny is familiar, giving the impression that individual judgments are being guided rather than manipulated.

Crazy Horse


Production: A Zipporah Films (in U.S.)/Sophie Dulac Distribution (in France) release of an Ideale Audience, Zipporah Films production, in association with Crazy Horse Prods., with the participation of Canal Plus, Planete Plus, CNC. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Frederick Wiseman. Directed, edited by Frederick Wiseman.

Crew: Camera (color, HD), John Davey; sound (Dolby), Wiseman; sound mixer, Emmanuel Croset. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Venice Days -- Special Event), Aug. 30, 2011 (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Real to Reel; New York Film Festival -- Special Events; San Sebastian Film Festival -- Zabaltegi Specials; London, Vancouver film festivals.) Running time: 134 MIN.

With: With: Philippe Decoufle, Ali Mahdavi, Fifi Chachnil. (French, English, Russian dialogue)

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