They Can Transform Themselves
We’ve been going so fast that we lost touch with creation.
“The reviewing of the show brings back my eternal request: please, let’s try to close for some time.” As Philippe Decouflé speaks, the camera in Crazy Horse picks up a series of faces, people seated around a table as they discuss what to do with the latest show at the Parisian cabaret club called Crazy Horse. No one looks happy, as Philippe receives his answer: “I’m sorry, the answer is no.”
A wide shot shows Philippe seated next to Andrée Deissenberg, the club’s managing director, as Philippe makes his case for art. “If we want to take a big step forward in quality,” he says, to ensure “the best strip dancing show in the world that will impress the intellectuals and all, let’s make it happen. Some things can’t be achieved unless we close.” Again, Andrée shakes her head: “I can only pass on the shareholders’ position.”
Thus, Philippe’s predicament. And thus, the focus of Frederick Wiseman’s 39th documentary, which follows the director’s efforts to put together a new show, “Désir.” Opening at Film Forum on 18 January, the film recalls Wiseman’s La Danse (2009), as well as Boxing Gym (2010), both contemplations of complex entertainments.
Like those films, Crazy Horse is focused on the laborers who make shows, artists and technicians, trainers and performers. Making art within a business plan, the workers compromise, complain, and come up with options they might not anticipated. In the dance club, the camera turns frequently from the stage, elaborately lit and designed, to the large, red-themed room full of tables. Most often, the chairs are empty, as waiters arrange white tablecloths and champagne in ice buckets. Occasionally, the film shows patrons, paying for tickets, dressed to be seen and smiling for souvenir snapshots taken by the club’s in house photographer, like they’re at Disneyworld.
More often, the film follows backstage preparations. In the dressing room, the dancers push their bodies into skimpy costumes, layer on their mascara, chat about the changes in their stage numbers. During rehearsals, Philippe and artistic director Ali Mahdavi discuss what they’re watching, trying to make live bodies conform to their abstract notions of beauty, they mean to tell stories, to narrate seduction. At the same time, they’re telling the story of the club, its mission to appeal to “intelligent” viewers, its refined self-image as a respected Parisian institution, founded in 1951 by Alain Bernardin, presenting nude girls on poles or dancing alongside dancer-sized silver letters that literally spell “Désir,” or offering their bottoms, again and again.
Dancer Nooka Karamel in a scene from Frederick Wiseman’s CRAZY HORSE. Photo by Antoine Poupel. Courtesy of Zipporah Films.
All of these stories are fictions. This becomes clearer as the tellers sound more earnest. “They can transform themselves, beauty counts less than what you do with it,” Ali explains to a reporter. “My motto is: there are no ugly women,” he pronounces. As the camera shows him in the reporter’s camera monitor, he distinguishes between young women “born with” beauty (“They don’t have to go beyond that”) and those “who have had complexes.” These women, he suggests, “have developed a strategy and a personality that help them transcend their handicap, it makes them fascinating and mysterious on stage.” Wiseman’s camera cuts to the woman who is taping the interview, behind the camera. She nods, though you can’t know whether she’s agreeing with Ali or appreciating her own work. He looks fine in frame.
To convey their concepts, Philippe and Ali instruct technicians on lighting and sound design, or dancers on the stories they’re telling as they swing their hips (“You’re hot! The heat makes you stand up!”). Backstage, they contend with other stories, including the concerns voiced by stylist Fifi Chachnil. Tasked with managing the wardrobe for the company, she insists—apparently with decreasing effect—that she be included in production meetings. If the directors must adhere to schedules and bottom lines, she has her own issues, costumes that might withstand multiple shows, work with rather than against the lighting, expose breasts and bottoms but still, don’t give away too much.
Fifi—her dyed blond hair piled high on her head—is especially worried that the girls are treated like objects, storytelling mechanisms rather than artists in their own right. “We can’t do as we please with the girls. They do the splits, facing the audience, or not, or whatever,” she sighs, exasperated. “You don’t take chances with a naked girl.” But, of course, they do.
Dancer Zula Zazou in a scene from Frederick Wiseman’s CRAZY HORSE. Photo by Antoine Poupel. Courtesy of Zipporah Films.
The directors arrange bodies on stage, a process the film documents repeatedly, to the point that the revue begins to seem abstract, a series of moments, of blue, orange, and green lights, silhouettes and mirror images, of a girl dancing upside down on ropes and others dancing in a line. As they blend together in a montage of movement, alternately graceful and awkward, repetitive and continuous, none of the stories is memorable or especially self-expressive. Instead, they’re insistent, practiced, careful, and calculated. They’re work.
Andrée exemplifies the effort. As a male reporter nods and takes notes, she reaches for words. “The ultimate thing is to suggest to seduce without offering oneself,” she says while doing exactly that. “It happens through frustration and imagination, through dreams dreaming is very important.” The reporter is getting his story. “The Crazy Horse,” she adds, “has created, celebrated, and refined a certain form in the art… to enhance to glorify and set off women and women’s games of erotic seduction in a way that’s sophisticated and inspiring. Inspiring for women.”
Backstage, the dancers look less inspired or transformed than they look tired. They watch a TV monitor of a recent performance, commenting on what’s wrong and what’s okay. They know.