Pretty Baby

Dir: Louis Malle, 1978. Starring: Susan Sarandon, Keith Carradine, Brooke Shields. Drama.
Pretty Baby

If I had a dime for every time I had to defend this brilliant film, I’d be a millionaire. The film is set in the red-light district of the early 1900s in Storyville, New Orleans—a time when prostitution was beginning to be looked upon as foul by the community. Brooke Shields plays Violet, one of three children who are being raised in the brothel in which her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon) works and resides. The house also serves as a sort of hotel for passing travelers and is stumbled upon by a photographer named Bellocq (Keith Carradine). At first, he is only interested in the women in order to study how they live and to capture their beauty and charismatic wonder with his camera. But when the 12-year old Violet begins her initiation to join the ranks of the women there, he becomes trapped in a battle with his conscience to both stop the girl from having a future in the house and to hold off his desire to keep her for himself. As for Violet, she is, after all, only a child and offers no aid in helping Bellocq make the right decision. She plays on his affection as one would expect a vain, spoiled, and fatherless girl to do. The resolution that comes to these characters does so without any sort of satisfactory closure. You’ll still be thinking about the future of people like this long after you’ve finished the film.

Now, let’s get past the controversy quickly before continuing. Yes, Brooke Shields is a 12-year old portraying a child prostitute who is artistically nude in some shots, though never performing a sexual act on screen. To most, this would be considered child pornography. But let us remember this is Louis Malle we’re talking about—a brilliant director who has a gift for delivering complex coming-of-age films as honestly and true to life as one can in cinema. Let us also remember that this film was made in the '70s when artistic expression without limitations was soon to come to an end, especially in America. Lastly, for a person in this time period, the social requirements for whom you could marry and sleep with was as far removed from today’s standards as you could imagine. With that said, I believe there is a lot more than what meets the eye with this film. I believe that it is still relevant and important in our society, and is perhaps a visual image that pairs well with songs like "House of the Rising Sun."

This is perhaps my favorite role from Susan Sarandon. She took many risks with her character and pulled off a very exposed and vulnerable person with bravery and style. And while I’ve yet to see many other films by Carradine and Shields, both delivered strong performances that should not be missed.

Like other films by Malle, Pretty Baby hardly focuses on the controversy it contains. After all, it’s set in the birthplace of Jazz, has an excellent soundtrack, and shows a side of America in its early years that you’ve never seen - and will never see again -  in cinema. It also breaks down the trials and tribulations of different kinds of relationships and social borders quite well. The characters range from eccentric and gaudy to total class acts (which complements the plot), including the head mistress, a voodoo priestess who resides in the brothel, and a black piano player who looks after Violet in a distant and passive way that is still somewhat paternal. My favorite scene involving him is when Violet is being initiated by having her virginity auctioned off in a room of men. At first he tries to find amusement in the situation as everyone else does, but when he realizes how close it comes to a slave auction, his sorrow becomes almost unbearable. And this is why I love this film. If you can look past your discomfort for a moment, you could at least understand the various points Malle is trying to make. Films like this are not different from portraying slavery or permitting violence against women on screen. All of them, no matter who sees it or what they gain from it, can at least allow you to grasp how far we’ve come as people and, in terms of Pretty Baby’s subject matter, how far we really have to go.


Pretty Baby was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Apr 12, 2010 2:29pm
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