Recording "Les Filles du Crazy," an anthem that they'll later lip-synch onstage, half a dozen women — performers at the Crazy Horse, Paris' classy nudie cabaret — sing of themselves, "They are the soldiers of the erotic army." The military metaphor proves apt, as Frederick Wiseman's spellbinding documentary on the Crazy Horse, founded in 1951, shows: The dancers' taut, perfectly proportioned bodies suggest Amazonian strength, and the battles between art and commerce at the nightclub drain even the most seasoned choreographers.
Wiseman's 39th film, in which his signature observational style dispenses with the usual documentary signposts, such as narration, identifying intertitles and talking-head interviews, completes at least two trilogies. Crazy Horse is the third installment in not only his movies about dance (following 1995's Ballet and 2009's La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet), but also in those about iconic French institutions, which, in addition to La Danse, include La Comédie-Française ou L'Amour Joué (1996). And in its deep focus on bodies and movements being perfected in confined spaces — the Crazy Horse occupies 12 former wine cellars — Wiseman's latest also resembles his previous documentary, Boxing Gym (2010), in which sparring partners work out in an old, bare-bones warehouse in Austin.
Yet none of the nonfiction master's previous works have been as dominated by, in the words of one costume designer, "nice, round buttocks." Rumps are constantly glorified at the Crazy, as evident in one of the first numbers, "Baby Buns," and in this directive to a group of auditioners: "Be pretty, classy, relaxed, don't stress out — and stick out your buttocks."
The ass-thrusting and -swaying, though, is part of a revue in which the erotic dancers are instructed when to deploy a retiré or a saut de chat; that many of them have been trained in ballet is apparent not only in their graceful, precise movements but also in the catty glee the women (especially the several Russians in the troupe) share backstage when watching a Bolshoi blooper reel.
"We're supposedly the best chic nude show in the world," says the slightly exasperated, bespectacled choreographer whose name we later learn is Philippe. (Post-screening Googling reveals that he is Philippe Decouflé, who was asked to expand the Crazy's repertoire in the fall of 2008.) The offstage drama, as in La Danse, is played out in meetings, during which creative visions are thwarted by unyielding business demands. To ensure a "classy premiere" for his show "Désirs" (which debuted at the Crazy in September 2009 and is still running today), Philippe asks that the club be closed for a few days to clean the spotlights. He is firmly shut down by Andrée (Deissenberg, the cabaret's managing director since 2006), who explains "the shareholders said no." The later arrival of a third player in the mounting of "Désirs," Ali (Mahdavi), brought in as an artistic director, highlights Philippe's growing annoyance: When Ali, shorn of hair and eyebrows and sandwiched between Andrée and Philippe during a press interview, oversells their mission by rhapsodizing about his "friends who come here and cry when they see such a level of beauty," the older choreographer can only squirm.
Although Wiseman has long been the pre-eminent chronicler of organizations (starting with his first feature, 1967's Titicut Follies, which went inside a Massachusetts facility for the criminally insane), the filmmaker's exceptional artistry restores the faith of those wearied by the glut of cruddy-looking and poorly structured documentaries from the past decade — vapid celebrity profiles, "journeys" of one kind or another, half-thought-out polemics. Aided by John Davey, his cinematographer since Blind (1986), Wiseman (who also edited, served as the soundman and produced Crazy Horse) demands, but amply rewards, our close attention.
The beauty captured at the Crazy — of the performers, their motions and the mauve, aqua and marigold scrims that frame their silhouettes — is summed up in Andrée's definition of eroticism: "The ultimate thing is to suggest without offering oneself." Every shot and edit in Wiseman's film also suggests without over-explaining, allowing a viewer to lose herself in pleasure, free to agree with or tweak Andrée's pronouncement.