Over nearly four decades and 40 documentaries, 82-year-old director Frederick Wiseman has taken reluctant ownership of terms like "direct cinema," "cinema verite" and "fly on the wall" — each suggesting a transparent sort of artistry, in which real life unfolds before the camera with minimal guidance from the man behind it.
This is nonsense, of course: While it's true that he works without narration (first-person or otherwise) and doesn't pepper his subjects with questions, classic Wiseman documentaries like High School and Public Housing examine institutions with the rigor and point of view of a great long-form essay.
Now comes Wiseman's mesmerizing Crazy Horse, the third in a trilogy about Parisian artistic institutions (1996's La Comedie-Francaise ou L'amour joue and La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet are the others), and it is a film that firmly belies the assumption that "fly on the wall" implies an absence of cinematic effect.
As much as the choreography in Wim Wenders' splashy 3-D dance extravaganza Pina, the performances at the world-famous Crazy Horse cabaret have been captured with exquisite precision. Given a nude revue that teases with patterned lighting effects, shapes and silhouettes, and the erotic ballet of bodies in motion, Wiseman and his cinematographer, John Davey, frame each shot to amplify details in the choreography. This isn't mere surveillance; it's art.
Founded in 1951 by Alain Bernardin, who operated the club until his death in 1994, the Crazy Horse runs seven days a week with multiple shows a day, which can create problems of consistency and creative stasis. For each show to meet the club's high standards, all the moving parts — literally and figuratively — have to operate in harmony, with different dancers and different technicians not only hitting their marks but giving off an erotic charge. At the same time, the old routines that patrons expect cannot turn the revue into an ossified museum piece; vitality and change have to coexist with tradition.
Though Wiseman reveals this struggle only in disparate pieces, the tension between old and new, shareholder and artist comes out in behind-the-scenes meetings where choreographer Philippe Decoufle argues for the time to enhance the show at a financial loss. Specifically, he wants to shut the place down briefly, in the midst of preparing his new act, Desir, to tweak the lighting and restructure the crew. (His pleas will prove quixotic.)
Elsewhere, other artisans are just as exacting: In one scene, the costume designer argues that a change in fabric, when set against the light, could mean the difference between "nice, round buttocks" and the bony kind.
Wiseman's fragmented approach misses the continuity of the show, which mixes erotic dance with comedy, magic and even a little soft shoe, and tells an overarching story that Crazy Horse never quite communicates.
Yet there's more than enough compensation in the scenes Wiseman does catch: the regimented display of champagne on ice for every table; the women sharing a light moment backstage by watching videotaped dance bloopers; an audition process that's as much about finding uniform body types as finding skilled dancers.
Above all, though, Crazy Horse ponders the mystery of eroticism itself, how an arrangement of bodies on stage can summon such an ineffable response from an audience. Among the creative brain trust behind Desir, each member seems to have a different answer to the question of what moves people and how. And outside of a few agreed-upon principles — modest yet shapely breasts, those "nice, round buttocks" — it's something that's perhaps beyond words. Beyond words, of course, is where Wiseman's camera comes in.