Frederick Wiseman’s “Crazy Horse” – Documentary Review

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s latest film “Crazy Horse” – an examination of the famed “Crazy Horse” Paris cabaret, which showcases nude dancers performing elaborately choreographed and art-directed routines – can be seen as a companion piece to his 2009 film “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet,” a film that also explored a Paris artistic institution that features dance performances.  The connection between the two is made humorously explicit in a scene in which some of the “Crazy Horse” dancers laugh at a blooper reel of Russian ballet performance mishaps.  Wiseman’s methodology is strictly cinema verité: no narration, interviews, or onscreen identification of subjects.  He immerses us into the daily life of this institution through behind-the-scenes footage of rehearsals, meetings, lighting set-ups, and interviews with journalists interspersed with the stage routines featuring the dancers.  The cabaret is filled with women who are chosen according to the strict aesthetic standards of its founder Alain Bernardin, with special emphasis placed on the chest and buttocks.  The dancers are treated as art objects to be manipulated into meticulously crafted patterns of flesh, light and shadow.  The creation of illusion is a major theme of the “Crazy Horse” stage show, as well as the documentary itself; it begins and ends with performers making shadow puppets.

In much the same way as the “Crazy Horse” dancers unveil themselves on stage (and are often seen unveiled in backstage dressing room footage), the mechanics and the technical details behind the stage shows are unveiled to us.  Many scenes detail the painstaking preparations that go into their creation.  The meetings between the show directors and shareholder representatives reveal the perennial tension between art and commerce.  In one meeting, artistic director Philippe Decouflé insists that he needs more time to prepare their new show, and begs for the venue to be closed for a time to allow this.  He is denied; the shareholders are against any interruption of operations.

The individual dancers are kept at a distance from us, in terms of learning much about how they chose this particular venue to perform and how they approach their performances.  The closest we get to learning how the dancers feel about performing in this show is secondhand, by way of a conversation about how some of them are reluctant to touch each other, feeling that sort of activity is too close to what would occur in a downscale strip club.  The two most significant personalities that emerge in the course of the film are the revue’s main director Philippe Decouflé and the designated “artistic director” Ali Mahdavi, two men who couldn’t be more different from each other.  Decouflé is a systematic craftsman, passionate about his work, but calm and meticulous in his methods.  In contrast, Mahdavi is volubly effusive and passionate about all things “Crazy Horse”.  He gushes to a journalist about his self-described “obsession” with the cabaret, having been a frequent patron before being hired as director.  One very revealing scene shows Mahdavi being on the surface quite deferential to his older and more experienced colleague Decouflé, but subtly indicating that he sees himself as paving a new way for the cabaret, as opposed to the other director, who belongs to the past.  Though we never see the two directors working together, the nature of their relationship is hilariously revealed in a late scene in which the two sit for an interview where Mahdavi, in especially cringe-inducing florid language, advocates for “Crazy Horse” as the highest pinnacle of art, invoking Fassbinder and Fellini in comparison.  Sitting next to him, Decouflé doesn’t even try to hide his disdain, audibly sighing and rolling his eyes.

“Crazy Horse” is a thorough and unhurried examination of its subject.  Although it sometimes flirts with tedium in its fascination with process-based minutiae, it cements Wiseman’s status as a vital, accomplished, and versatile documentarian, honoring every subject lucky enough to be captured by his searching, perceptive camera.

“Crazy Horse” opens January 18 at Film Forum in New York. For showtimes and tickets, visit Film Forum’s website [].