A Slow Ride on the Crazy Horse: Frederick Wiseman’s documentary reviewed

The Lumiere Reader, September 10, 2012


A female arm snakes above the stage sinewy as smoke, a lovely leg spikes and its reflection ripples the silver waters of the mirror below. With a taste of your lips, I’m on a ride, you’re toxic, I’m slippin’ under. The mirror divides the stage like a horizon line. With a taste of a poison paradise, I’m addicted to you, don’t you know that you’re toxic? Britney isn’t singing. This remake is slower, the voice languid and lilting like the limbs of the dancers. The stage is in blackness, arms and legs fan out above the mirror and rorschach below, as though the dancers have intertwined to become one woman—a goddess—with multiple arms and legs but only one head. (Blonde.) Toxic is an incredible sequence, sprung from the well of the choreographer’s imagination and executed, presumably on high rotation, every week at the Crazy Horse in Paris.

The Crazy Horse is famous for its avant-garde nude revue show and this documentary by Frederick Wiseman focuses on the preparation for the unveiling of their new act Désirs. Let me come clean right away and say that I know nothing about Frederick Wiseman and I didn’t know much about the Crazy Horse either. A bit of back story: the club opened in 1951 and was founded by Alain Bernardin, who eventually took his own life with a shotgun, whilst sitting in his red velvet office backstage. He was 78. I guess he named the club?

The Crazy Horse is no longer family owned, but it has the Bernardin legacy to uphold. Philippe Decouflé is the Production Director and ambitious mastermind behind each erotic act. His career is illustrious; Decouflé choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, and has worked with the Cirque du Soleil. But of course, I’d never heard of him when I saw this documentary. Watching him mince across the stage in a black t-shirt during rehearsals, I’d just assumed he was a fabulous gay man. How superficial of me. He’s probably not even gay. I liked Decouflé and sympathized with his laconic attitude, and his round the table demands for more time to realise his creative vision. I especially enjoyed watching him work through the on-stage issues for a routine that’s essentially the mating call between two beautiful female astronauts. I’m not surprised to learn he has a background in mime either; Désirs contains a volume of dancing silhouettes.

The current staff is obviously proud of the club’s reputation and take their work very seriously. Wiseman’s documentary devotes plenty of air-time to what happens both on and off the stage. Knowing nothing of his other cinematic work, I’d call his gaze dispassionate. The Club doesn’t come across as particularly crazy. In fact the energy that goes into the orchestration of each act is streamlined and tightly controlled. Or at least highly repetitive; the camera records everything from numerous rehearsals, to the combing and keeping of wigs.

The real star of this documentary is Ali Mahdavi—a bald, talkative, camp man who’s morphed from being a club regular to an employee. Officially, Mahdavi is the artistic director and second in charge to Decouflé. Unofficially, he’s the Gollum of Crazy Horse. His skin is very pale; it doesn’t look like he’s seen daylight in years. I completely believe that the Crazy Horse is “his precious.” He’s totally obsessed with the perfectionism of each act. Mahdavi comes across as repugnant and crazed (he puts the crazy back into crazy horse) but he also makes some of the best observations about the dancers. The Crazy Horse enables a woman to become the dream of herself. I should have been writing his quotes down but I wasn’t, so that’s a rough approximation. It’s true though. And there are women with far less natural beauty than the Crazy Horse dancers who still need to entertain that dream.

During my mid-twenties I worked as a barmaid at Showgirls on Customs Street. Of course the stage shows in Paris are a cut above the old Showgirls routines I was once so familiar with, but I was disappointed this documentary didn’t focus more on the girls. The dancers remain a gaggle of beautiful sirens in the background, they aren’t belittled in any way, but we aren’t privy to any of their opinions or insights either. They’re flesh for fantasy. And what an amazing fantasy it is. There is no scene of a dancer slathering tomato sauce on a meat pie, or plucking her pubes out with a pair of tweezers during the down time between shows, let alone bending over in the mirror to check her bum for stray wads of loo paper. I missed those details.

The scenes I liked the most were the cutaways to day time Paris, the camera panning out over the Seine, or along a city street, like the clear eyes of a dancer returning home from rehearsal, then later plunging back behind the glass doors of the Crazy Horse and down the plush red stairs. The sex industry actually thrives on the humdrum everyday: fantasy can’t exist without reality. We need the world without the pretty pink wigs and the baby buns on display.

I thought my brief stint at Showgirls might have given me unique—penetrating—insights into the world of this documentary. Alas I have nothing to add, only things I’d subtract. Whilst a female leg in black silk stockings can never be too long, a film can. Like a regular drinking at the back of the club, Wiseman lingers under the stage lights—the flare of red—the flash of midnight blue—and holds his gaze.

It’s easy to understand his fascination and this documentary is a portrait of both the dreamer (Decouflé, Mahdavi…) and the dream. However, there isn’t much left to reveal. Burlesque and the timeless art of the striptease are now as mainstream as McDonalds. Middle-aged couples pose for their photos in the subterranean gloom of the Crazy Horse. (Throughout the film I kept thinking about that Leonard Cohen lyric, “for ones like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty…”) On the monday night, I went to the Embassy theatre, it was filled with a variety of middle-class punters. Not a trench coat in sight. Plenty of young women in their twenties were also in attendance, their lips deeply red, fifties haircuts worn with panache. I’m sure most of these women now aspire to strip to an Antony and the Johnson’s song on a chaise lounge, or to tie their naked bodies in red rope, suspended from the stage, as though from a celestial swing. My own baby buns days are decidedly over. Still, the dream of beauty, of glamour, of sex, rages on, as urgent and ridiculous as ever.

It’s what keeps the Crazy Horse cantering along with plenty of cash in the tills.