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September 15, 2011 1:00 AM
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TORONTO REVIEW | With "Crazy Horse," Frederick Wiseman Turns His Camera to Cabaret

"Crazy Horse"

Eighty years old and some forty films deep, documentarian Frederick Wiseman remains at the top of his game. "Crazy Horse," his typically first-rate verité look at the famous Parisian cabaret club of the same name, applies his distinctive technique to familiar material. Ever since his 1967 directorial debut, "Titticut Follies," Wiseman has relied on the rhythms of sound and imagery within a contained environment to assemble his narrative backbone. The Crazy Horse, with its undulating bodies and gleaming fluorescent lights, offers a dazzling cinematic experience because Wiseman lets the footage lead the way.

From the first shot of a shadow puppet to the lavish displays of topless dancers gyrating in sync, "Crazy Horse" announces itself as a study of delicate motion. For an early performance, which like most numbers takes place against a solid black background with flashes of glittering clothing, the camera (guided by director of photography John Davey) holds a lengthy close-up on a woman's bare waist as it continually circulates. The body part becomes divorces from meaning and takes on an otherworldly dimension, solidifying the choreographers' belief that their work goes beyond the need to satisfy base desires and services a higher calling. The oft-used phrase "cinema of attractions" takes on a dual meaning here.

Although the majority of the footage shows the dancers at work, "Crazy Horse" takes a few breaks to explain the context. Behind the scenes, the organizers engage in constant dialogue about the purpose of their work. Over the course of producing a new show entitled "DÉSIRS," director Phillipe Decouflé faces push-back from higher-ups when he demands that the club close down for rehearsals. "It's about art," he insists, and while nobody disagrees, they constantly acknowledge the demand for titillation. "You don't take chances with a naked girl," mutters one of Decouflé's colleagues.

Wiseman contrasts the liveliness of the club with dull, daytime exterior shots, providing fleeting reminders of that the events taking place onstage at Crazy Horse don't exist in a fantasyland. Founded in 1951, the club commands respect among the country's intellectual elite for its unparalleled commitment to a generally abandoned art form. Furthering that point, Wiseman roots the club in the real world while showing how the dancers transcend it with each subsequent dance number.

Like his last feature, "Boxing Gym" (and the preceding "La Danse"), movements of the human body become the leading storytelling device. A sultry dance set to a slow cover of Britney Spears' "Toxic" takes place against pure reflective surfaces, creating the extraordinary illusion of twin bodies drifting through empty space. This type of surreal flourish is typical of the Crazy Horse, where the choreographers strive to use their dancers in service of creativity entirely alien to audiences expecting simple striptease.

The tidbits of dialogue threaded throughout the movie highlight that process. The only sizable flaw of "Crazy Horse" is that Wiseman includes a little too much chatter over the course of the leisurely 132 minutes, distracting from the stronger moments taking place onstage. But many of these asides provide a peek into the world of The Crazy Horse, letting viewers soak in its minutiae.

At one point, discussion revolves around whether a specific lighting scheme creates the impression of smooth or bumpy buttocks. During an audition, Wiseman's microphones capture the whispering decisions of choreographers as they size up the physical strengths of their options. They cite Michael Powell as an influence on the dance numbers, but these production scenes create the feeling of a high art take on "American Idol."

As usual, Wiseman doesn't include talking heads, but the show directors get a chance to explain themselves when his camera watches them in conversation with French journalists. Lest some viewers fret that the feminist elephant in the room goes untouched, the club's artistic director puts forth a rebuttal with his stated intention of exploring "the highest level of beauty in femininity." It goes without saying that, at least for their own standards, they pull it off; by paying close attention, Wiseman does as well.

criticWIRE grade: A-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? While "La Danse" did major business both abroad and in North America, "Boxing Gym" was not nearly as big a success. But "Crazy Horse" is set for a release at New York's Film Forum in January, where the combination of art house audiences and those drawn by the promise of nudity should combine to substantial box office receipts.

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