Part performance film, part backstage documentary, Crazy Horse is familiar in form, yet remarkable both for its subject and for who’s sitting in the director’s chair. The Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris has been staging sexy burlesque routines since 1951, with special emphasis on grand spectacle and erotic artistry ever since managing director Andrée Deissenberg and choreographer Philippe Decouflé took over in the ’00s. Unlike most documentaries about the grueling act of theatrical creation, Crazy Horse is nudity-riffic, featuring scene after scene of half-clad dancers rehearsing. And behind the camera for all this? None other than Frederick Wiseman, legendary documentarian and cinéma-vérité pioneer, who aims to take in life with as few filters as possible—not even the filter of direct, contextualizing interviews. So don’t look to Wiseman’s Crazy Horse for any sort of history of burlesque, either general or localized. This movie is all dancing and dance preparations.
In that sense, it has a lot in common with Wim Wenders’ recent documentary Pina, though Wenders’ tribute to the life and work of choreographer Pina Bausch was a little more explanatory. A lot of Decouflé’s work deals in abstractions, as did Bausch’s. The dancers in Decouflé’s show contort themselves unnaturally, and strain against obstacles, and work with mirrors and lighting effects that alternately reveal and conceal. These routines are beautiful, and captured by Wiseman’s cameras in close-up, from multiple angles, and with lighting that captures every wrinkle and sheen in the dancers’ costumes, such as they are. Like Wiseman’s recent documentary Boxing Gym, Crazy Horse is dynamic and expressive as it shows human bodies in motion.
As for the offstage sequences, they’re imbued with Wiseman’s usual strengths and weaknesses. With all the emphasis on eroticism, it’s easy to wish for the occasional leading offscreen question about what’s sexy vs. what’s vulgar, and whether those distinctions matter in cabaret. (The subject comes up only in passing, in creative discussions and publicity sessions.) But Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall approach is as effective as ever at recording aspects of a business that other filmmakers might miss, such as Decouflé’s frustration that the Crazy Horse’s stockholders won’t let him close up shop to work full-time on building a new show, and the way the costumer worries that the light is striking one dancer’s buttocks in the wrong place. Anyone could make a film about a theater full of naked women; only Wiseman would take equal interest in the person who handles the ticket-ordering, and the one who makes sure there’s a bottle of champagne on every table.