A peculiar film that attracted a fair measure of controversy during its original release, Pretty Baby is somewhat difficult to appraise, because even though it’s beautifully crafted and thoughtfully written, it’s also inherently sleazy. After all, the storyline is about a teenaged prostitute in 1917 New Orleans, complete with nude scenes by leading lady Brooke Shields, who was 12 years old when she made the picture. It’s impossible to fully justify the eroticizing of a child by saying that it’s germane to the story, because director/co-writer Louis Malle could have exercised more restraint and conveyed the same narrative. Therefore, one must ask whether Malle photographed Shields so lasciviously in service of a high purpose (challenging the audience to regard erotic images without experiencing an erotic reaction) or in service of a low purpose (pandering to the worst kind of male gaze). It’s not as if Pretty Baby approaches pornography in any way, but the film’s content is troubling.
Anyway, the story is primarily set in a high-end brothel run by the aging but formidable Madame Nell (Frances Fay), who treats her working girls and support staff like family members. Because every woman in the house is expected to earn her keep, however, the prostitutes’ daughters are groomed to become working girls themselves. One such mother-daughter duo is Hattie (Susan Sarandon), an experienced whore anxious to quit the game, and Violet (Shields), who has just come of age. As the story progresses, Hattie becomes engaged to a client and agrees to move with him to St. Louis, while Violet is “sold” to her first client, a middle-aged man who pays $400 for the privilege of deflowering her. Meanwhile, a lanky photographer named Bellocq (Keith Carradines) starts hanging around the brothel to take pictures of the women, and he becomes infatuated with the beguiling but petulant Violet. Thus, after Hattie leaves for St. Louis with a promise to return for Violet someday, Bellocq takes Violet into his home as a live-in lover. All of this is set against a backdrop of social turmoil, because the New Orleans of this movie is rattled by protests that lead to prostitution becoming illegal.
Demonstrating his signatures of a curious mind and an eye for detail, Malle tells the story clinically, as if it’s a re-creation of a historical event. (In fact, the story is wholly fictional, although the milieu it depicts certainly existed.) Pretty Baby is on some levels a survival story about young women in an era when people born into shameful circumstances had few social options, so it has some resonance as a feminist parable. The movie also has copious amounts of atmosphere, thanks to glorious costuming and production design, to say nothing of subtly textured cinematography by Sven Nykvist. (His images capture everything from the deceptively elegant interiors of the brothel to the sweltering humidity of New Orleans’ tree-choked suburbs.)
As for the acting, it’s a bit uneven. Carradine and Sarandon are strong, as always, and supporting players including Antonio Fargas and Diana Scarwid add saucy flavors to the mix. Faye’s performance is stiff, but her physical presentation is so perfect for the role that her weak acting is easily overlooked. And then there’s Shields. It’s hard to say whether she’s genuinely performing or merely affecting a precocious attitude, but the combination of her delicate features and Violet’s gritty persona is potent. Ultimately, Pretty Baby is far too serious an endeavor to dismiss, though it’s a mystery why the film was made.
Pretty Baby: GROOVY