A 'Crazy' Look at Paris Strip Palace

Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman Turns Serious Eye on Skin

Spectacle: The documentary takes the viewer inside the surprisingly engaging world of the Crazy Horse cabaret.
antoine poupel
Spectacle: The documentary takes the viewer inside the surprisingly engaging world of the Crazy Horse cabaret.

By Margot Lurie

Published April 23, 2012, issue of April 27, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Frederick Wiseman is one of the few Jewish geniuses of documentary filmmaking. In a career spanning 39 films, he has earned acclaim for portraying the internal dynamics of prisons, high schools, mental hospitals, courts, the military and zoos. In the 1995 film “Ballet,” as well as in his sumptuous 2009 movie “La Danse,” he displayed a trademark adeptness at filming bodies in motion. He returns to the subject as a featured artist in the current dance-centric Biennial of the Whitney Museum of American Art and in his most recent documentary, “Crazy Horse,” a study of bodies in a rather different motion.

It’s said that playwright Samuel Beckett used to frequent Paris’s Crazy Horse Saloon, with its nude dancers and its acute attention to what the French call les fesses (a term that evokes, by cognate, the backside’s “fissure” but has no adequate English equivalent). Beckett would sit close to the stage, at a good table, with his back — for God knows what bleak and tragicomic reason — to the show. The image has an odd resonance. Given the cabaret’s famous focus on les fesses, there may be some men, unaccustomed to displays of “T&A” with quite so much “A,” who spend the better part of the film hoping for the girls to turn around.

Frederick Wiseman
gretje ferguson
Frederick Wiseman

But who cares about men? “The key to eroticism is the woman,” Crazy Horse’s managing director, Andrée Deissenberg, says in the film, insisting that Le Crazy draws equally ardent responses from both sexes. We watch the process of selecting dancers, knowing — it’s public information — that they are chosen on the basis of rigid criteria that run counter to almost everything the word “stripper” calls to mind: Girls must be between 5 feet 4 inches and 5 feet 6 inches; nothing bigger than a B-cup; no tattoos. Indeed, the criteria might appeal to women more than to men. Elegant rather than voluptuous, the girls look like the lissome former ballerinas that many of them, in fact, are. (The first American hire, in 2008, was a former Rockette.)

Wiseman is philosophical about the spectacle. In an interview with the website Artinfo, he said that for him, “none of the dances are particularly sexual. There’s nothing at the Crazy Horse show, for example, that suggests heterosexual sex. All the acts, for whatever reason, suggest either lesbianism or masturbation. I don’t know why that is.”

The most telling scene in the film involves an audition. Crazy Horse draws dancers from all over the world (today’s company is heavy on Russians and Eastern Europeans). They are told to “be pretty, classy, relaxed, don’t stress out — and stick out your buttocks.” Each candidate gets one minute to improvise a dance, in a G-string and optional heels, to (what else?) Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” One hopeful is instructed to stand in sixth position, profile. Well aware of Le Crazy’s reputation as the derrière-garde, she assumes a pose reminiscent of nothing so much as a baboon presenting its rump.

About three-quarters of the way through the film, Wiseman abandons his trademark fly-on-the-wall style and starts — perhaps for the first time in any of his films — asking his subjects direct questions. Unfortunately, the questions are directed mostly at Ali Mahdavi, the self-proclaimed Crazy Horse obsessive who, as “artistic director” (an inflated title), is slyly, if pathetically, insubordinate toward his boss, director/choreographer Philippe Decouflé.

We’d much rather hear from the individuals who actually expose themselves, the dancers; while they don’t tell their stories, we see their camaraderie and diligence, along with an endearing, unexpected wholesomeness. We watch one dancer brushing the horsehair tail that bisects her bare fesses, and several others howling around a videotape of Bolshoi bloopers. It was for strippers like these that H.L. Mencken coined the lofty term “ecdysiast.”

An exotic dancer prepares for her performance.
antoine poupel
An exotic dancer prepares for her performance.

Ecdysiasts or not, ballet is these dancers’ first language of instruction, and insiders will smile at the classical terminology (cambré, saut de chat, rétiré) used here to block out their bump-and-grind routines. Most viewers will be less familiar with the old burlesque techniques of strategic delay, like removing a stocking in eight counts when it really takes just four.

Unlike Darren Aronofsky, who shares Wiseman’s linked directorial interests in boxing and ballet, Wiseman films bodies in ways neither prurient nor prudish — and, of course, with none of Hollywood’s pyretic, choppy body doubling. Some of the dance numbers he films are original to Le Crazy, dating from the 1950s. In more cases, the numbers don’t show much artistic continuity with the cabaret’s old days, but they do convey something of the same saucy attitude, allowing for the passage of half a century. All are elegantly, meditatively captured by Wiseman: Three girls curling fingers and scissoring legs around a mirrored parquet; the bounce and arched backs of “Baby Buns”; the heartbreaking, brilliantly lit dancer writhing on a divan, cat-clawing the air to Antony and the Johnsons’ melancholy “Man Is the Baby.” It’s just a shame that the musical number ending the film is pure Vegas stripper kitsch, simultaneously cloying and clammy.

Neither Decouflé nor Mahdavi hesitates to invoke the word “art” on behalf of the cabaret, and when Decouflé, who studied under contemporary dance master Alwin Nikolais, performs some of the choreography himself — that is, when we see how arresting the dancing is, even on one simple, black-clad male body — we actually see what he means.

Or we think we do, until Decouflé yells for someone to bring a pair of moon boots to the girl in the revolving cage.

Margot Lurie, a former company member of ODC/Dance, is the editor of Jewish Ideas Daily. “Crazy Horse” is now in limited release.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.