Coming after the great "Boxing Gym" (2010), which revealed a universe of sweaty truth inside an Austin, Texas, punching-bag emporium, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's"Crazy Horse" settles for a bit less. The subject is smaller and, weirdly, more modest: the Paris cabaret known as the Crazy Horse, providing locals and visitors with naked and semi-clothed women since 1951 in a celebration (according to its web site) of "beauty, raw talent and personality of the sensual dancers in an unimitable, sophisticated and glamourous way." I think they mean "inimitable," but you get the idea.
The idea wasn't new in '51, and certainly it's even less new now. From the Moulin Rouge to London's Windmill Theatre to the onstage flesh peddled in a little town called Las Vegas, where official and unofficial Crazy Horse spin-offs remain in rotation in and among all the Cirque du Soleil shows, the nude revue has been good business. Early Broadway was no stranger to the concept, either, though with a few more strategically placed garments, dating back to Ziegfeld's "glorification of the American girl" and the more down-market "Earl Carroll's Vanities."
Wiseman's film concerns the creation of the latest Crazy Horse topless and sometimes bottomless revue, "Desir." Per Wiseman's custom there is no narration, no on-screen expository information about who's who, or what happened when. His camera — his eagle-eyed, patient, intuitive camera — follows the performers backstage, engages in conversation with the costume designer, pauses to catch a stunning, sweetly comical shot of table after table bearing buckets of champagne, hours before the cabaret opens to the public.
The revue's director, Philippe Decoufle, and the jumpy, self-admittedly "obsessive" artistic director Ali Mahdavi, find themselves working in somewhat compromised rehearsal and budgetary conditions. Mahdavi's the Eve Harrington of this world, eager to take more control of the onstage results than Decoufle will allow. The performers, who (spoiler alert) look pretty good, are neither sentimentalized nor unduly ennobled by Wiseman. At one point, the woman managing the auditions for the next revue warmly reminds the multinational batch of hopefuls: "Be pretty, classy, relaxed, don't stress out." Pause. "And push your buttocks out."
When we see what's actually being delivered on stage, it's clear this Parisian institution has one eye on the present and another on the past. In silhouetted segments recalled '60s and '70s era James Bond opening credits, the women are objectified utterly; they're simply shadows, playing, langorously, at images of female pliability, availability, enticement. One Crazy Horse staffer, also female, is asked on camera by a visiting journalist to define the cabaret's notion of eroticism. To "suggest," she says. To "seduce."
The key word in the seduction? She answers: "Restraint." In other words, Wiseman's film — a minor but absorbing chapter in a crucial filmmaker's book of images and subjects — cannot locate a single stripper's pole anywhere in the vicinity of the Crazy Horse.
'Crazy Horse' -- 3 stars
No MPAA rating (copious female nudity); in French with English subtitles.
Running time: 2:14
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre.