Synopsis: Internationally acclaimed director Louis Malle has taken a taboo subject – child prostitution – and created in Pretty Baby a film of humanity and beauty. E.J. Bellocq (Keith Carradine) is a photographer in 1917 obsessed with the prostitutes in New Orleans’ red-light district. Violet (12-year-old Brooke Shields) a young girl, bewitches Bellocq with her curiosity and naive coquettishness. Malle’s level-headed treatment of this controversial theme and exceptional performances by the entire cast (especially Susan Sarandon as Violet’s prostitute mother) make Pretty Baby a must-see for all serious film fans.
Pretty Baby 7.5
eyelights: its realistic portrayal of a 1917 brothel. its boldness.
eyesores: the performances. its uncomfortable subject matter.
“I love you once. I love you twice. I love you more than beans and rice!”
Well, this made me feel uncomfortable.
I knew it would: ‘Pretty Baby’ is a 1978 motion picture by Louis Malle that shows us the inner workings of a 1917 New Orleans brothel from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl. I had heard of the controversy surrounding it, so I was well-prepared.
And still, it left me disquieted.
The thing is, Violet, our protagonist, was born and raised in the brothel. She knows nothing else. This is where she plays and socializes. This is also where she is groomed to follow in the family tradition. And, as a 12-year-old, her time is coming.
Now, I know that this is a reality of life in many parts of the world. It’s as !@#$-ed in the head as child soldiers. Let children have their innocence for as long as they can, for God’s sake! Sadly, economic and political factors can trump that.
Watching ‘Whores’ Glory‘ put this in perspective.
What really made me feel out of sorts about ‘Pretty Baby’, though, is that it crosses into grey areas that don’t feel entirely safe. Perhaps it’s impossible to treat of child prostitution and make it safe. And perhaps it was intended to make us feel this way.
But watching Violet fraternize with the patrons of Madame Nell’s whorehouse as though it were commonplace was awkward enough. To see her eagerly emulate the adults around her was a little bit more than I could bear, though it wasn’t out place contextually.
There are two reasons why I found this challenging to watch: Firstly, there’s the aforementioned reality of this; children do fall into prostitution. Secondly, there’s the fact that a child actress had to say all of these words and perform these actions.
This means that Brooke Shields, as Violet, and who was only 12 at the time, had to pretend to be sexually provocative with adult men and was surrounded by adults acting out sexually. I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of impact that can have on a child.
Now, ‘Pretty Baby’ is pretty tasteful for a movie set in a whorehouse. Seriously. Women aren’t walking around naked and sexual activity isn’t readily on display; the girls socialize with the brothel’s patrons and disappear off to a room when the time comes.
But the language and behaviour remain, and Shields was hanging around Susan Sarandon (who plays her mom, Hattie) posing topless for Bellocq, a local photographer. Perhaps, being a child model, she had already been exposed to adult nudity. That’s possible.
So maybe it wasn’t such a big deal, given her background.
It still made me squirm.
And it got worse.
When Violet decides to leave the brothel, after an undue punishment for fraternizing with a “coloured” boy, she goes to Bellocq’s and offers to be his live-in lover. Eek. Though I know that girls are still married off at a young age, I found this unsettling.
It got even worse.
Bellocq is a photographer. He’s been shooting nude pictures of the girls at the brothel, especially Violet’s mom. So it was a natural thing for him to want to shoot Violet, who had become his lover. Um, I was not prepared to see Shields subtly eroticized.
She was, after all, 12-years-old.
We’re not talking ‘The Blue Lagoon‘ here.
Naturally, this drew much controversy to the picture at the time; ‘Pretty Baby’ was censored in the UK and outright banned in some Canadian provinces. It’s hardly surprising, though I’m stunned that it came out at all; it probably wouldn’t today.
Had I seen the picture at the time, I probably would have been up in arms, worried about Brooke Shield’s psyche. I mean, look at what happens to child actors subjected to way more conventional circumstances. But, as it turns out, Shields turned out okay.
Other than dating Michael Jackson, I mean.
(Which, truth be told, is only weird in retrospect, given the allegations against him…)
Ironically, Shields isn’t even that great of an actress here, so I couldn’t help but think that the amazing Tatum O’Neal would have a better bet. But O’Neal ended up being the poster child for Hollywood trainwrecks without the help of this movie.
So maybe Shields was the right choice, after all.
Still, the casting was “off” across the board: though names like Susan Sarandon and Keith Carradine may suggest legitimacy to some, they were both at the beginning of their careers and they don’t deliver natural performances at all. No one does.
Perhaps this can be blamed on Malle’s direction. I don’t know, as I’ve seen only one of his other films. There are, however, rumours of countless casting options that fell through, which leads one to conclude that perhaps Malle had to make do with his cast.
Malle did the best he could and he did manage to create a realistic atmosphere in the whore house. In fact, the most impressive aspect of the picture is the setting and staging; though I wouldn’t know any better, I believed that we were in 1917 New Orleans.
Malle was also clearly aware of the unsettling nature of his subject and he brilliantly chose to play with his audience’s expectations and prejudices: the opening scene finds Violet watching mouth agape as a woman in moaning and cursing off-camera.
But the woman isn’t having sex in front of her, as anyone remotely aware of the picture’s plot might be thinking: it’s actually Hettie giving birth to Violet’s latest sibling. Ha! Nicely done. With the initial discomfort now defused, Malle could carry on.
In fact, the real shocker comes much later, when Violet’s virginity is on offer to wealthy patrons of the brothel: she’s paraded before them on a platform like a queen and is then put on display so that the men can take turns bidding at deflowering her.
It’s realistic, but it’s no less unpalatable.
Sexualizing children is nuts. And, yes, that includes child modeling. Let them have their innocence; it’s such a small period of our lives that’s impossible to recapture; it should be experienced, if at all possible. Let kids grow into their sexuality, I say.
‘Pretty Baby’, for all its controversy, brings this topic to the fore, showing us that a child may act like an adult, but it doesn’t have the maturity to be one. Still, some unfortunate souls are forced by circumstance to go through the motions early on.
And though it’s excruciating to see Violet subjected to this existence, it’s a reality that we’re too quick to turn a blind eye to. This also brings to light the wisdom of putting children through the ringer of show business, of prostituting their innocence.
Thankfully, though her performance is amateurish, forty years later, it looks like Brooke Shields was probably the only child actress who could have pulled this off. She was compelling enough to watch and she came out of the meat grinder pretty balanced.
Thank the Goddess for small miracles.
Date of viewing: May 21, 2017