Rating: 4/5For a documentary film about a subject as titillating as the Parisian club Crazy Horse’s nude show, a filmmaker has two obvious choices, metaphorically linked to the camera itself: does he zoom in and look closer at his subject, so obviously enticing, or does he pull back and observe with cool distance? Each option is potentially dangerous to the creative integrity of the project. The first takes the show’s most obvious attraction seriously, by capturing glimmers of what draws audience members to it, but the danger is in becoming too enthralled to the spectacle. The second option restrains the pull of spectacle but runs the risk of denying an aspect so foremost and unavoidable in the show’s presentation that it may strike a false note with many as a sort of cop-out, an unwillingness to acknowledge its inherent attraction.
In Crazy Horse, Frederick Wiseman wisely decides to do neither, and both, at the same time. The film conveys no confusion about the pleasures of seeing the Crazy Horse dancers perform, but Wiseman abstracts it to such an extent that we begin to notice the show’s purely pictorial appeal. Rather than make the women register merely as desexualized forms, Wiseman does something like the opposite, making us aware of the erotic sensuousness of this world of pure geometry. Striking a balance between closeness and distance, Wiseman creates the preconditions necessary to dissolve into the show on a purely oneiric level, casting a dreamlike landscape that teeters toward the unreal and yet, at the same time, seems the most appropriate vantage point for a show so playfully engaged in fantasy.
Following a shot of hovering blue lights spelling out “Desire” in complete darkness, Crazy Horse begins with an unseen man making shadow puppets. Thus we enter the Crazy Horse by way of dream logic and are introduced to one of Wiseman’s recurring visual motifs: the silhouette, which is displayed in one of the show’s acts involving women dancing behind screens, so we see only the outlines of their bodies. Throughout, Wiseman transforms bodies into pictures in this way, and in his visual framework the outline of the female form has less to do with the physical than it does with a purely visual realm, like that of animation. Though these silhouettes may still titillate, they are nothing more than images, not substantially different from cartoons. Wiseman thus draws attention to how eroticism partly hinges on a sensorial relationship with form, which explains the appeal of even a woman’s curves glimpsed only in silhouette.
Wiseman’s insights, owing to a perceptive approach and keen visual sense, answer the questions raised by the club’s show better even than the men and women who design and run it. They are shown in various interviews attempting to explain the club’s appeal, but understandably fall short of fully explaining the mystery. Wiseman, on the other hand, makes it perfectly clear: beauty is worn by these women like a decorative layer of clothing and sits atop their physical forms as erotic ornamentation, a series of visual grace notes produced through lighting and subtle control of movement. Wiseman makes it clear that we do not always see these women’s bodies directly, naked though they are, because attention is instead drawn to the play of colored light on them or the geometric curves their movements carve through space. In fact, one performance begins in such a way that it’s uncertain we are looking at bodies at all for quite some time, entranced by kaleidoscopic light that covers and overwhelms flesh. Eventually, through the refraction of Wiseman’s lens, what sounds overly abstract becomes truly sensuous as the show’s very composition allows for the dancers to break through reality into a realm of transcendent, pure fantasy.
Most of all, Crazy Horse is shocking not for its copious nudity, which is natural enough to silence any nervous objections, but for the elegance and effectiveness with which Wiseman presents the club as dreamscape. Wiseman films the performances by highlighting the way they stand out against dark, usually all-black backgrounds, so that the women appear even more as pure image, isolated from any real-world context. The effect is reminiscent of how dreams feel, our attention focused on a few striking images while the misremembered edges of this dream world are always shrouded in shadow and mystery. Wiseman uses the frame of the cinematic image to great effect here, and we often feel that outside the frame, nothing else exists, certainly not the aboveground Paris we catch brief glimpses of over the course of the film. The images seem to float through some dim corner of the unconscious, a world where location is moot. Even when we see the club itself or the other people who work there, the world of Crazy Horse seems like something out of a David Lynch film, even down to a pair of tap-dancing twin brothers.
Wiseman never censors the experience of the Crazy Horse show, nor scolds any enjoyment of it, but what he does instead is arguably more subversive because he interrogates, albeit playfully, our attraction rather than undermine it. Wiseman doesn’t make any definitive statement about fantasy, its uses or dangers. What he does is even more audacious: he films it. Wiseman maintains such control over shaping his material that it’s almost incorrect to call this a documentary at times. But for a film about a show that so easily blends the imagined with the real, perhaps the observant eye we so often associate with documentaries is undesirable. Rather, Wiseman has found a dream world and allowed us the rare opportunity to glimpse its mystery clearly.