Synopsis: The self-tagged 'best nude dancing show in the world', legendary nightclub Le Crazy Horse de Paris comes under the eye of documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. The film follows two obsessive perfectionists, choreographer Philippe Decouflé and artistic director Ali Mahdavi, as they create a new erotic revue entitled Désirs.
Wiseman covers ritzy club with little razzle dazzle.
There’s female flesh a-plenty here, but the routines are aestheticised rather than crudely pornographic
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: This is not a film about Neil Young’s long-time rock band but the latest in revered US documentarist Frederick Wiseman’s career-long series of patiently observed films about institutions.
This time the institution is the eponymous Paris burlesque revue founded in 1951 and still going strong. This choice of subject might sound a radical departure to those viewers only casually acquainted with the director as the guy who makes films about hospitals, public housing and the criminal justice system, et al. But that omits the way his interests have expanded over the years to include all manner of institutions including culture and sport.
This is his third film about French cultural organisations (using the word “cultural” loosely) following his films about the Comedie Francaise in 1996 and Paris Opera Ballet in 2009. And it’s not the first time he’s shown a professional interest in institutions that specialise in beautiful women, having planted his flag on that turf with 1980’s Model.
The first three sequences of Crazy Horse are devoted to routines from the revue and make it immediately obvious that anyone referring to it as a “strip club” (viz. an article on Wiseman last year in The Guardian) hasn’t watched it. These displays of sensuality and eroticism are of the kind that has lately made burlesque performers fashionable.
There’s female flesh a-plenty here, most of it belonging to jaw-droppingly gorgeous young women, but the routines are aestheticised rather than crudely pornographic (though the line, admittedly, can be thin – approximately the width of the women’s G-strings), which means they are full of striking lighting effects, optical illusions with mirrors, elaborate set design and sensual choreography. All to the sound of some deliriously cheesy music.
Not that it’s all a perve’s paradise. Wiseman has been blessed with rich human subjects in the shape of the revue’s director-choreographer, Philippe Decouflé, and his motormouthed artistic director, Ali Mahdavi. There’s a priceless moment in the candid footage of a senior staff meeting where Declouffe complains bitterly about the limited financial resources he’s forced to work with, and declares that he what he really wants to do is create a show that “will impress the intellectuals”. Only in France! A later scene reduced my audience to paroxysms of laughter when Mahdavi gets so carried away by his hyperbolic rhetoric during a TV interview that it looks as if he will never stop to draw breath.
The choice of subject makes this a far more approachable film than Wiseman’s Paris Ballet Opera film La Danse, with its arid scenes of rehearsals and warm-up routines amid some admittedly spectacular ballet sequences. Also an improvement is that the filmmaker seems to have realised there’s no point in giving viewers such pointless scenes as workers mending light fittings and visiting the canteen. The suspicion arises that he’s letting his hair down – what little he has left – and having fun.
But on the disappointing side, by sticking to his usual rigorous methods – no voiceover narration, no interviews on camera (unless conducted by someone outside the production) – he keeps at frustrating arms length the girls he spends so much time observing. We get to know their flesh intimately. Sadly, we never find out how they feel, where they came from, or what makes them tick. Just once it would have been nice for Wiseman to rewrite his rule book, with its “strictly observational” ethos. But in that case, I guess, he wouldn’t be Frederick Wiseman.
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