Paris, a City of Lights, Camera, Action: Parisian Cabarets as Big-Screen Inspiration

Photo from Crazy Horse © Antoine Poupel
Photo from Crazy Horse © Antoine Poupel

Moulin Rouge
The only thing Baz Luhrmann's 2001 musical "Moulin Rouge!" has in common with the actual, 122-year-old dance hall in Montmarte, Paris, is the tuxedos, and, naturellement, "The Infernal Galop" from Jacques Offenbach's 1858 opéra bouffon Orphée aux enfers, better known on both sides of the Atlantic as the "French Can-can."

Not counting Luhrmann's 2004, thirty-six-million-dollar advertisement for Chanel No. 5, which again featured his muse Nicole Kidman, "Moulin Rouge!" is the final installment in his "red curtain trilogy" which opens with a frenetic, tuxedoed and tailed conductor who appears in front of a red curtain to lead the 20th Century Fox overture before Lurhmann flies his camera over fin de siècle Paris landing on the right bank, hilltop home of painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, novelist Colette and the outrageous Moulin Rouge headliner La Goule, who died penniless steps from the club's trademark red windmill.

This opening sequence is the only moment over the course of the next two hours a version of the "French Can-can" that's not mashed-up with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is heard. Luhrmann attempts to spice up the world's most clichéd quadrille in which dancers hike skirts colored like the French flag up to reveal frilly panties: a scandal when it debuted in 1889, but tame by today's standards.

Moulin Rouge the cabaret seems equally as embarrassed by its "French Can-can" tradition, burying the dance in the last quarter of Doris Haug and Ruggero Angeletti's show "Féerie," which debuted in 1999 and is the cabaret's main, two-shows-a-night attraction. Before the Doriss Girls, a troupe of sixty women supplemented by twenty male Doriss Dancers, are trotted out for the "French Can-can," we've already witnessed a stage billowing with dry ice, clowns, a forty-ton aquarium housing five pythons and one very brave Dor.iss Girl, roller-skates and enough marzipan-colored marabou to put the African storks on the endangered list.

The giant white elephant that used to sit in the original Moulin Rouge's backyard bookends the stage for a Bollywood-themed number. Gentlemen used to be able to crawl into that elephant's belly for a private dance during the belle époque; in the film, it's the breathtaking set piece where Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman duet their burgeoning attraction by riffing on everything from KISS to Dolly Parton atop the pachyderm before fireworks explode in the sky above the Moulin Rouge.

Luhrmann's Oscar-winning take on the Pigalle cabaret is the latest and most expensive film on the subject, but Moulin Rouge on film dates back to a nineteenth-century silent. Other iterations of Moulin Rouge include a 1934 version starring Constance Bennett as the headlining showgirl and an uncredited Lucille Ball as a chorine. A 1952 John Huston-directed Oscar-winner features Zsa Zsa Gabor as Jane Avril, the soft-spoken Can-can dancer tasked with replacing La Goule. And a 1960 adaptation of Cole Porter's musical "Can-Can" stars Frank Sinatra as the club owner and Shirley MacLaine as the eponymous dancer whom Nikita Khrushchev decried as "immoral" after the Soviet Premier visited the set.

Crazy Horse
Of course, the Moulin Rouge is not the only immoral game in town. Over in the tonier eighth arrondissement of Paris on the Avenue George V, Alain Bernardin opened Le Crazy Horse Saloon in 1951 and the cabaret's current review, "Désirs," opened in 2009. Philippe Decouflé, contemporary dance star, choreographed this show to be a bit more high tech and much less kitsch than the revue "Féerie," but unlike the Moulin Rouge, this club has an altogether more faithful film adaptation in Frederick Wiseman's 2011 documentary "Crazy Horse." Wiseman, a parent of cinema verite, also completes a trilogy filming various choreographies with his 2009 documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet titled "La Danse" and his 2010 look at amateur fighters called "Boxing Gym."

In verite-style, Wiseman lets the goings-on of Crazy Horse unfold without voice-over and it's a fascinating look at assembling a show like "Désirs," from auditions where the creative team is unsure of the sex of one of the dancers to a backstage area filled with dozens of fuchsia, China doll wigs, but unfortunately, Wiseman's film, which clocks in at over two hours, also contains the majority of "Désirs," which only runs ninety minutes with intermission, so there are few surprises onstage.

Both film and revue squander an opportunity to interview classically trained dancers named Zula Zazou, Nooka Karamel, and Psykko Tico to suss what really makes them kick. By attracting high-end talent like burlesque performer Dita Von Teese, shoe designer Christian Louboutin, and Pamela Anderson, Crazy Horse should have no problem assembling a brand-new show. Until then, it's probably best to save one hundred-plus Euros on a ticket and cuddle up with "Crazy Horse" on DVD. Splurge the savings on a good bottle of champers.

Folies Bergère
The third Paris-after-dark cabaret is the Folies Bergère and its rue Richer address is midway between Moulin Rouge and Crazy Horse. Its 1869 opening predates Moulin Rouge by two decades and it's known for launching the career of Maurice Chevalier and providing a home for banana-skirted, American expatriate Josephine Baker, but both storied music halls have film adaptations scattered far and wide.

Chevalier starred in the first, a 1935 musical entitled "Folies Bergère de Paris," but Busby Berkeley's choreographic prisms are the real star. More recently, Dame Judi Dench belted the number "Folies Bergère" in the box office dud "Nine," but also played the title character in Stephen Frears' overlooked "Mrs Henderson Presents," a true story about London's Windmill Theatre wherein Dench plays an eccentric widow who imports a topless dancing from Paris while WWII London is bombed.

Anyone with an upcoming trip to Paris should keep in mind travel advice highlighted by Dench's Lilli, the costume designer in "Nine", who sings: "The music, the lights, and the laughter. The answer to what you are after."