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Crazy Horse

February 26, 2012
Crazy Horse

I’ve been inside a so-called “gentlemen’s club” once. It was on my first visit to New Orleans, when some astrophysics graduate students from the University of Maryland in town for the same conference insisted that the one of them — the gay one, of course — absolutely had to get a lap dance while in town. Like most reports I’ve heard of such places, it was a particularly dismal place; the main talent displayed was an uncanny knack for extracting every last bill from an observer’s wallet. This is evidently not the case with burlesque cabaret shows like those at Le Crazy Horse de Paris, or so I gather from the documentary film, Crazy Horse (warning: the trailer is Not Safe For Work).

“Le Crazy”, as its staff call it, opened in 1951 according to the vintage posters on seemingly every backstage wall. And it’s hardly a seedy dive; each table is stocked with a bottle of champagne for an audience composed mainly, it seems, of couples. As they wait for the show to begin, we watch photographers make their way through the house, taking pictures to be printed for souvenirs, like an amusement park thrill ride.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to say what the audience thinks of it all; is it as sophisticated as the staff seem to take it? is it a goofy night out — a tourist trap with breasts? Director Frederick Wiseman presents no interviews, but rather floats around the background, silently observing. The one seeming exception is the hyperactive art director Ari who will ramble on about his love for Le Crazy — right up there with Marlene Dietrich — for long minutes to anyone who will listen. I think he’s actually talking to a completely different group of videographers shooting promotional material, but it functions as one of the few times anyone speaks directly about the cabaret.

Most of the film is spent watching Philippe Decouflé, the new director and choreographer, struggle to restage the classic acts while also developing fresh ones into a new show — Désir — to carry Le Crazy into the future. He argues with Ari about what lighting changes are feasible before the evening performances — two every night and three on Saturdays; he spars with the management, trying to convince them to shut down for a short while for a complete overhaul; he tries to placate the costumers who feel a lack of consistent direction; he struggles to communicate to the girls the fine points of dancing in silhouette.

But at intervals Wiseman switches to show the acts themselves, likely closer and clearer than would be possible for an attendee. The silhouette dancers pantomime stripteases over synthesizer-infused jazz; three — or is it four — sets of arms and legs writhe above a mirrored table to Yael Naïm’s cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”; a single dancer moves fretfully across a chaise longue.

To be sure, Crazy Horse is about nude girls dancing, and to watch the show come together there’s a lot of flesh on display. But what comes across more than anything else is how quickly T-and-A becomes totally architectural. Where some artists work with oils, Decouflé works with bodies. It may not be as transcendental as Ari thinks, but it’s better than the sort of place you find around these parts.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: it’s hard to say; like most documentaries there are few “characters”, but we do get to watch the girls talking to each other backstage. I’m going to give it a pass.

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