** DIRECTED BY Frederick Wiseman
STARS Phillippe Decoufle, Ali Mahdavi
Le Crazy Horse de Paris, the subject of Frederick Wiseman's documentary Crazy Horse, first opened its doors in 1951 and since then has become perhaps the most famous nightclub of its type in the entire world.
A cabaret that focuses on artistic nude dancing while also offering tap dancers, shadow puppetry and other appetizer attractions on the side, the venue has surely been home to countless fascinating tales over its six-decade history (not the least being that original owner Alain Bernardin committed suicide in 1994). Yet the movie might as well be about the Burger King on Sharon Road, considering that it tells us virtually nothing about this legendary Parisian club — in fact, we only know it opened in 1951 because it's stated on a poster glimpsed on a wall.
The focus is on director-choreographer Phillippe Decoufle's efforts to stage a new production titled Desir (Desire), which, based on the evidence here, looks like a cross between Cirque du Soleil and late-night Cinemax. Wiseman and cinematographer John Davey divide their time between filming backstage discussions about finances, costumes and artistic visions and capturing various stage numbers that feature topless (and, in some cases, bottomless) beauties singing kitschy songs (e.g. "Baby Buns") and/or showing off their dance moves.
One of the grand statesmen of the nonfiction field, Wiseman has always been known as a point-and-shoot documentarian, preferring to examine facets of life with no fuss, interference or additional commentary (past titles include Hospital, Meat, Missile and Domestic Violence). Yet such an approach doesn't seem especially conducive to the subject matter presented here. Wiseman allows Decoufle and artistic director Ali Mahdavi (whose penchant for talking without breaking for air makes me suspect he can hold his breath for up to an hour) plenty of screen time to offer their views, but what about the women in the show? At one point, we hear Decoufle and others discuss how these ladies don't like to touch each other during the performances, but why? Are they homophobic? Do they detest each other? Are they afraid of cooties? Is this even a true statement? We never find out. Nor do we learn about the women's opinions regarding their jobs (which, despite the ample T&A, brings to mind classically trained dancers rather than bump-and-grind strippers). In a meat-market scene eerily similar to one in the shocking documentary Girl Model, potential dancers are lined up on stage as Decoufle and his team discuss (within earshot of the women) which ones they like and dislike, based purely on their face and physique. Naturally, this is an integral part of casting a Crazy Horse show, but some insights into how the ladies might have felt during this sequence would have been appreciated.
Some of the dances are creatively staged — love those polka dots! — but all too often, Wiseman and Davey don't allow us to see them as the live audience might, opting instead to cut off the heads and feet and focus solely on the boobs and buttocks. I hesitate to say it, but considering that Wiseman is now 82, it often feels like we're watching an old-timer's stag film rather than a revelatory documentary. Running a long 132 minutes yet failing to educate viewers in any way, Crazy Horse ultimately feels like nothing more than a tease.
(Crazy Horse will be screened at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 17-19, at The Light Factory, 345 N. College St. Admission is $7. More details at www.lightfactory.org.)