PARIS (AP) — Like a flock of rare birds preening their splendorous plumage, the perfectly proportioned dancers at Paris’ mythic Crazy Horse cabaret reapply their cherry red lipstick and dust their nearly naked bodies with iridescent powder before taking to the stage.
These are among the stolen moments that make up “Crazy Horse,” a new documentary that lifts the thick velvet curtain on the world-famous cabaret — where the backstage drama is arguably as enthralling as the sensuous dance numbers.
“Crazy Horse” was made by American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who, at age 81 and with 39 films under his belt, is almost as much of institution in his own right as “Le Crazy” — as the French call the Right Bank cabaret.
Founded in 1951 by French businessman Alain Bernardin, the Crazy aimed to “bring strip tease a l’Americaine to Paris,” as the club’s website puts it.
Sixty years later, the snug, velvet-covered club — which still occupies the basement of a stately building in Paris’ tony 8th district — has instead come to symbolize sensuality “a la Francaise.”
While other famed venues such as the Moulin Rouge or Lido are often seen as past their prime, the Crazy continues to be a Paris icon, and its black bob-wigged dancers are seen as incarnations of audacious Parisian chic: racy, teasing but never vulgar.
Wiseman was a young man when he first attended a revue at the Crazy, in 1957. It would take him more than half a century to return. After his 2009 documentary about the ballet of the Opera de Paris, “Dance,” Wiseman was casting about for another compelling subject for a documentary that would allow him to spend more time in the City of Light.
He went back to the Crazy and was sold.
“Every one of my movies, the metaphor is Las Vegas, it’s a roll of the dice,” Wiseman said in an interview with The Associated Press. However, he added, with “Crazy Horse” it wasn’t “much of a gamble. You have 18 to 20 beautiful women, good music, a place that has a tremendous reputation.
“It’s a question of how good a film you can make. You can screw it up, certainly, but the basic material is there and it was up to me to get it.”
And get it he did.
Administrators, staff and dancers greeted Wiseman and his pared down crew of two into the cabaret all day every day for 10 full weeks.
The film is packed with beautifully shot images of the dance numbers: Topless girls covered with leopard spots gyrate around the bars of their faux lion’s den; others, seen only as shadows, gleefully disrobe, glove by glove and stocking by stocking.
Unexpected nuggets of humor break the sensuous spell, though, and give the movie a light touch. Dancers decked out as sexed-up versions of Buckingham Palace guards, oversized fur hats and scarlet harnesses hung with strategically placed tufts, brush the tangles out of their little horsehair tails. Another scene shows the dancers at a recording studio, screeching their way through an earsplitting rendition the club’s theme song. Singing is not their forte.
But it’s the scenes of backstage machinations that set the movie apart. Wiseman caught a delicate moment in Crazy Horse history, as the cabaret’s new owners were in the midst of giving the revue a face-lift, with famed French choreographer Philippe Decoufle hired to gently update the numbers.
In a staff meeting, we see Decoufle press administrators to close the club for a spell to give dancers a chance to perfect the routines. An administator balks at the suggestion, saying there was no way the shareholders would accept.
“It’s the traditional conflict between art and money,” Wiseman summed it up succinctly. But because his documentaries are stripped to the essentials — there’s no narrator to walk viewers through what they’re seeing, no interviews with the subjects — the internal clash is more intuited than explicit.
Born in Boston in 1930, Wiseman studied law at Yale and before turning to the cinema in his late thirties. His first feature-length documentary, “Titicut Follies,” about a Massachusetts mental institution, came out in 1967.
Since then, he’s churned more than 3 dozen others, tackling such wildly disparate subjects as factory farms (“Meat,” 1976), the modeling industry (“Model,” 1980), prize fighting (“Boxing Gym,” 2010), disabilities (“Deaf” and “Blind,” both from 1986), the inner-workings of democracy in Idaho (“State Legislature,” 2006).
His advanced age hasn’t kept Wiseman from keeping up with his nearly one-movie-per-year production schedule, despite the grueling physical demands of his monthslong shoots.
Wiseman said the dancers — who spend the entire film in near complete undress — appeared happy with the movie.
“They seemed to like it,” he said. “At least that’s what they tell me, and I want to believe them.”
The movie opens in France on Oct. 5 and is slated to be released in The U.S. on Jan. 15.