Pretty Baby (1978)
“1917. The red-light district of New Orleans. The story of the women. The photographer. And the prostitute’s daughter.”
Director: Louis Malle
Cast: Brooke Shields, Keith Carradine, Susan Sarandon
Synopsis: A teenage girl lives as a prostitute in the early decades of America, only to know her body is for bounty.
Pretty Baby, Louis Malle’s depiction of life in a New Orleans brothel at the time of the Great War was pretty controversial in its day. He dressed 12-year-old Brooke Shields up in diaphanous white gowns to sell her virginity then posed her unflinchingly nude for the camera. It’s something of a miracle that Pretty Baby ever managed to achieve a DVD release. The film would probably not even get made today.
It’s a good film, enhanced immeasurably by Sven Nykvist’s rich visuals. Most of the story is told within the confines of the brothel in which Violet (Shields) lives with her prostitute mother (Susan Sarandon), and Nykvist’s cinematography has you breathing in the sultry and sullen atmosphere. Malle confounds our preconceptions and foreshadows Violet’s destiny without the wasteful luxury of words. Violet is on the cusp of pubescence, knowing beyond her years, but still diverted by the games of childhood.
At the beginning of the film we see a close-up of her impassive face while we hear what sounds like a woman engaging in sexual intercourse. The woman is Violet’s mother, and she is actually giving birth. The taking of Violet’s virginity after auction is book-ended first by a shot of two waifs listening to her screams from outside the bedroom door and then a close-up of the haggard features of the brothel’s ageing madam. Blink and you miss it, but pay attention and he fulfils the requirements of his tale with a masterly touch.
Keith Carradine’s sallow photographer Bellocq is perhaps the weak link. His occupation marks him out as a passive man, a watcher who timidly observes without participating and from whom anything can be taken. In some ways he is as much a child as Violet. His character seems unformed. He is a bland loner who can only appreciate beauty through a lens and doesn’t know how to control it when it’s in his hands. Perhaps that is why Carradine seems so flavourless in the role.
The final shot seems to be something of an enigma. Many people dislike it, possibly because it offers no real conclusion. I’m pretty sure that was Louis Malle’s intention. Violet has allowed herself to be reclaimed from her husband by the mother who abandoned her, but she appears unhappy, her face in that final freeze frame filled with a mixture of anxiety and resentment. Her motives are as complex as Malle’s, and that final shot hints at a mere intermission rather than closure. Just think back to those earlier scenes I described.
Brooke Shields has never been better, which is something of a sad reflection on the rest of her career when you think about it. She’s in her mid-forties now and, in the last thirty years, has done nothing that comes even close to Pretty Baby. Susan Sarandon also makes an impression as Violet’s mother.
(Reviewed 13th May 2008)