TIFF Review: Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse (2011, directed by Frederick Wiseman)

If you've seen a Wiseman doc before, you probably know what you're getting into. His style is verite and he does it extremely well, "simply" pointing a camera at his subjects and letting their lives provide any sort of narrative. There's very little that's truly simple about his films though. In lesser hands that form of documentary can be deadly dull, but Wiseman's ability to construct exquisite images, and find rhythms through the editing process, sets his work far above many of his peers.

Which is why Crazy Horse, in many ways, caught me by surprise. In portraying subjects already used to scrutiny, Wiseman made some interesting changes to his usual style, and I'm still not sure whether they were for the better.

If you don't know, the Crazy Horse is Paris' most revered burlesque venue, a club that for decades has been dedicated to the admiration of the feminine form. What that means is that the film is, shall we say, very casual about its use of nekkidness. There are reasonably hot naked and partially naked women on screen for probably a quarter or a third of the film's running time - women rehearsing routines, performing routines, or just hanging out backstage. For that reason alone, this is easily Wiseman's most "mainstream" film. To his credit though, the camera doesn't do any ogling. Wiseman, as always, is worried about the composition of his images and not in turning on his audience, but frankly the ladies of Crazy Horse don't need any help in that department anyway.

As performers though, most of the people in the film are used to being watched, and while there's no sense that anyone is performing per se their comfort level in front of the camera, and their awareness of it, is a sharp contrast to any of Wiseman's previous films that I've seen. He also, for lack of a better word, cheats. In something like Boxing Gym he makes no attempt to explain to the audience who his subjects are or what they are doing, and offers no summations. Meaning comes purely from observation. In Crazy Horse though he actually lets the staff of the Crazy Horse explain themselves by filming them being interviewed by other journalists. It's kind of a jarring intrusion, almost talking heads by proxy, and I'm not sure it should have been in the film. Media attention is surely part of their lives, but I have to think there could have been more organic ways to portray that fact.

That nitpick aside, Crazy Horse is for the most part pure spectacle. Many of the routines, even in rehearsal, and filmed in a fairly tight shot and surrounded by nothing but darkness, effortlessly giving the audience the illusion that are actually in the club and not watching a film about the club. There is a rope suspension routine near the end of the doc that might be the best primer on the appeal and eroticism of bondage play ever put to film. And when Wiseman does open things up, such as scenes where he cuts back and forth between a routine itself and other dancers watching the routine backstage and commenting on it, he brilliantly reveals the personal dynamics of the troupe, simultaneously supportive and competitive.

Perhaps my favorite moment in the film comes when the dancers are simply hanging out and watching an old video of Russian ballet bloopers. At no point does anyone say "I wanted to be a ballerina when I was growing up, and now I'm here instead". No one mourns wistfully about the road not taken. The girls are all having a good time, laughing at clumsy lifts and jetes that wind up entangled in the scenery, but it also makes perfectly clear that whatever you see them as, they all still see themselves as dancers. It's a lovely, subtle moment, and the bittersweet echo of Wiseman's previous film La Danse can't be mere happenstance.

If anyone sees this just to watch the hot naked burlesque chicks, I kind of pity them. It's an excellent film, period. You shouldn't need another justification to seek it out.

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