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In the Temple of Desire

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Antonie Poupel/Zipporah Films
Choreographer Philippe Decouflé and dancer Baby Light in a scene from Crazy Horse

The magic corporeality enacted for the spectators is brought down to the level of pure detail work, as a dresser explains to a dancer precisely how the light reflecting off her costume makes her buttocks look bony, a monologue that would seem merely technical if it were not for the affection and modesty with which the dresser displays her craft. The scene is made considerably more amusing by the dresser’s unsuccessful struggle, while she speaks, to slide an excessively clingy piece of lingerie off a mannequin.

The mechanism of desire becomes increasingly abstract as acts are broken down into ever smaller components of fabric and light and movement. Wiseman has referred to this as one of his most abstract films: “All my films are, but Crazy Horse is very, very abstract.”3 But there is nothing diagrammatic about the people out of whom the patterns are made. We watch Decouflé fine-tuning the gestures of dancers behind a screen in order to produce the sexy silhouettes that look very much like images from the title sequence of a 1960s spy thriller. The fabrication of shadows is a motif from the beginning: the film opens with a variety performer making a shadow puppet of the Devil, with the emphasis less on the image created than on the way the hands are positioned to create it.

Crazy Horse manages to achieve a kind of constant double image. When we watch the numbers we see both the fantasy and the labor that goes into simulating it—the dream body offered up to the clientele of the Crazy Horse and the actual body working very hard at every moment of the spectacle. The show exists almost apart from the performers; they merely play in it. With Wiseman’s two previous films, La Danse—Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris (2009) and Boxing Gym (2010), Crazy Horse might be seen as part of a trilogy on physical effort. Beyond any words spoken or any larger social structures implied, what we are given to do is contemplate bodies in difficult purposeful movement: these are “action films” in the true sense, in which bodies are emotionally expressive in themselves.

The dancers are at the center of everything and yet they are the most elusive presences in the film. We learn nothing of them; their words seem always to be caught in passing; unlike the directors and administrators they are not given to long discourses on the nature of art or eroticism. The brief and silent moments when Wiseman catches them in repose have a beauty—an essential privacy—that is worlds away from the public spectacle around which all these lives are clustered. Between the production numbers’ maxi-shock (to use a term brandished during one of the rehearsals)—an array of nudes in military parade gear harangued by an invisible drill sergeant, a dunescape constructed out of artfully lit buttocks, the full lineup of dancers draping themselves around giant glittering letters that spell out D-É-S-I-R—come Wiseman’s daylight intervals of downtime where nothing much is going on: a dancer stands idly in a passageway, sunlight illuminates an empty stairwell. They are the most voluptuous moments in the film. Finally there is nothing to do but look.

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    Laetitia Mikles and Delphine Lévy, “Entretien avec Frederick Wiseman,” Positif, October 2011. 

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