Paris is undeniably the city of the cabaret. From Le Chat Noir (considered the first modern cabaret, where Verlaine and Debussy could be found on any given night) to the famed Moulin Rouge (which was immortalized for modern audiences in Baz Luhrmann’s film of the same name), cabarets are a mythical, mysterious and sensual world that keeps drawing curious eyes.
Director Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse takes viewers into the world of the same-name cabaret. Established in 1951, the Crazy Horse has seen Dita Von Teese glide her way across the stage, and -as choreographer Philippe Decouflé frequently mentions throughout the film -has the reputation to uphold as “the best nude dancing show in the world.”
Following the cabaret for 10 weeks before the debut of its new show, the film deconstructs the process behind making the magic happen onstage. Opening with a montage of full dance numbers -which showcase how the use of lights, costumes and skin (lots of it, naturally) are used to present an illusion to the audience -it then gets into taking away the glitter-speckled curtain and showing how the cabaret is grappling to produce quality spectacles while keeping the team together and meeting the boss’ orders.
Contrary to popular belief, cabarets are not just a titty show. While nudity is featured prominently, it is never gratuitous. An illusion is created, as managing director Andrée Deissenberg explains in the film, through equal parts of frustration and imagination. Every number has a story, which is artfully told through the way the dancers’ bodies manipulate the space around them. Many of them sport Anna Karina pageboy hairstyles, evoking a sense of old-fashioned glamour. The use of lights, whether it is to spot the dancers with leopard spots, or to hide them and only allow viewers to see the shadows, is prominent and invaluable in creating a mood.
Perhaps the most surprising part about the performances is the obsessive attention to detail. Everything is taken into account to preserve the show’s aesthetic image. One scene sees one of the wardrobe creators, Fifi Chachnil, telling a dancer that a particularly shiny skirt cannot be used anymore because the way the material interacts with the lights makes the dancer’s buttocks look bony.
Beyond the stage, the tension in the team is palpable. Decouflé fights with management to close the cabaret for a bit, in order to give him and the dancers more time to perfect the show and deliver on the creative side. Deissenberg tells him there is no way this will happen, as shareholders have shot down the suggestion every time. Meanwhile, Chachnil claims the creative meetings are not consistently held, and the shows are suffering from it. While it is evident that they are all passionate about their jobs, the film reveals the Herculean degree of effort the shows require.
There are, however, touching and comedic moments. The performers, who almost hold two-dimensional roles (as they are the characters which the film gives least insight into), share a light-hearted moment while watching ballet on a small television in their dressing room.
Although the film could have benefited from more interviews with the subjects, its detached stance does the job and embodies the sense of cabaret: you can look all you want, but you can’t touch.
Crazy Horse plays at Cinema du Parc (3575 du Parc) starting Nov. 25. For more information, go to www.cinemaduparc.com.