I knew a dancer back in the States who worked with the Washington Ballet … by day. Some nights, under a different name, she performed as a stripper in a seedier part of town. While recognizing the need for secrecy, she herself had no problem with moonlighting as a peeler, and in fact enjoyed it. I always loved her for being able to embrace the duality — highbrow/ lowbrow, innocent/ vulgar, white swan/ black swan — with no explanation necessary. Life is all these things.
Documentary director Frederick Wiseman clearly also gets it: He chose to follow up his 2009 film “La Danse” — an in-depth exploration of the Paris Opera Ballet — with “Crazy Horse,” a look at a more tawdry Paris institution. The 82-year-old director spent 10 weeks filming the nude dancers at the legendary cabaret club, just as innovative choreographer Philippe Decoufle was brought in for a major overhaul of the show.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: If you want to see this film for the same reason people go to the actual Crazy Horse club — inconceivably leggy beauties in various states of undress who are all rather amazing dancers — you will not be disappointed. (And the French aesthetic au naturel thankfully avoids the pneumatic implants favored by American nude revues.)
Wiseman brings his usual unobtrusive style to the film, just shooting what happens — 150 hours’ worth — and then shaping the story in the editing room. He foregrounds the performances, while also examining the nitty-gritty of all that is needed to put on a show, from the endless, precise rehearsals to the inevitable arguments over creative differences. Wiseman is so inclusive he’ll even throw in a shot of the schmuck who washes the front windows. There’s also a dissonant note played, with a “meat market” audition where naked dancers are judged entirely on body type.
Perfectionism is a top-down trait at Crazy Horse, and that’s clearly visible in the routines, only a few of which are kitsch. The play of perfectly timed kaleidoscopic lighting on the intertwined bodies of two dancers twirling inside a hoop is nothing short of amazing, as abstract as a Stan Brakhage film, and incredibly sensual. Even more impressive is a dance on the edge of a mirror, where arms and legs are isolated and surreally doubled, images worthy of Salvador Dali. The coup de grace is an aerial routine, half-bondage, half-Cirque du Soleil; a more graceful turn-on you’ll rarely see.
Wiseman’s technique is not fancy, and he avoids the rapid cutting that marks so much modern-dance cinematography; indeed, one sequence is about three minutes of tight focus on a dancer’s slowly grinding hips as she teasingly removes her panties. Yet Wiseman has the eye of someone who knows dance well, who instinctively recognizes where the camera should linger and where it should follow. Although many Wiseman docs can feel a bit over-stuffed, “Crazy Horse” bows out just over the two-hour mark, leaving you wanting a touch more.
While there are many scenes of dancers in “Crazy Horse” applying makeup to transform themselves, to become that impossible figment of desire, in “This Must Be the Place,” retired goth star Cheyenne uses it as a kind of crutch, a barrier between himself and the world. The effect of the white powder and lipstick on his deeply lined, middle-aged face — that of Sean Penn, who plays Cheyenne as a mix of Robert Smith mopeyness and Michael Jackson fragility — is not flattering, even a little ridiculous.
Yet it’s that ridiculousness, combined with a sly sense of self-deprecating humor, that warms us to this eccentric character, a soft-spoken rock star who has drifted into postcareer ennui and isolation on his Irish estate. Cheyenne’s only friends are teenage goth-girl Mary (Eve Hewson, Bono’s daughter) and his stolid wife Jane (Frances McDormand), and he loathes the attention of fans and people asking him to produce their records. (There’s a reason for this, as we learn later.)
When Cheyenne’s father dies, he returns to New York after a long absence, and the film does a 180-degree turn here, from deadpan comedy to holocaust-survivor movie. Cheyenne stumbles upon his father’s diaries, and resolves to take up his old man’s mission to find the guard who tormented him at Auschwitz. This sets off a cross-country quest through the American west, as Cheyenne slowly moves beyond his solipsism through encounters with folk on the road.
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“Il Divo”) is clearly in a 1980s retro mood; inspiration gleaned from European-viewed U.S. road movies such as “Paris, Texas” and the Talking Heads’ 1983 song “This Must Be the Place” seem to shape the entire film. “Home is where I want to be/But I guess I’m already there,” sings David Byrne — who appears in the film — and this sense of rootless stasis defines Cheyenne’s dilemma. Half the characters in the film are running from their past, and Sorrentino forces Cheyenne to deal with the present for once.
“This Must Be the Place” is wonderfully meandering, and you’ll have no idea where it’s going, which is always a good thing in a road movie. This looseness also has its drawbacks, as Sorrentino seems to drop some plot lines while inadequately explaining others. But with Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography just stroking your optic pleasure zone shot after shot, and Penn so deep in the zone of his character that he erases every trace of the actor we know, this film must be worth watching.