Pretty Baby (1978)


(director/writer: Louis Malle; screenwriter: Polly Platt/from the story by Polly Platt; cinematographer: Sven Nykvist; editor: Suzanne Fenn; music: Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton/Scott Joplin; cast: Brooke Shields (Violet), Keith Carradine (Bellocq), Susan Sarandon (Hattie), Frances Faye (Nell), Antonio Fargas (Professor), Matthew Anton (Red Top), Diana Scarwid (Frieda), Barbara Steele (Josephine); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Louis Malle; Paramount Home video; 1978-in English)
“An inert and boring morality tale that should please neither sensationalists nor puritans.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Viewed at the time with controversy, as if it was borderline child pornography. It’s set in New Orleans’s Storyville red-light district in 1917 and is seen through both the 12-year-old eyes of lifelong cathouse resident Violet (Brooke Shields) and the effete photographer Bellocq (Keith Carradine). He’s enchanted with the whorehouse beauties; while photographing them he shuns sexual relations with them, as he’s only interested in showcasing them for an art exhibit romanticizing their life. The bordello, run by Nell (Frances Faye), employs a dozen prostitutes who have many children. Violet’s mom, Hattie (Susan Sarandon), is one of the whores who gave birth on the job and raised her kid in the questionable workplace environment. Others who are part of the regular retinue include the Negro Professor (Antonio Fargas), the house piano player and man of the world, and many of the local wealthy clients.

The film asks the big question of what’s to come of the child growing up in such a tawdry atmosphere and if the world-weary Hattie could ever straighten herself and not be a whore. Violet offers us a blend of childlike innocence and adult sensuality, qualities that enable Bellocq to put her on a pedestal as he falls in love with her. Their problematic Nabokovian relationship is re-evaluated when Hattie gets married and leaves her child on her own with the photographer.

This was the first American film of French director Louis Malle (“Damage”/”Atlantic City”/”Elevator to the Gallows”), who aims to explore the conventional morality of adults and their hypocrisies. It’s shot by Sven Nykvist in mostly plush whorehouse reds; the story and screenplay by Polly Platt unfolds as if from the canvas of a Renoir. There’s also a ragtime score to keep with the New Orleans soulful mood. To Malle’s discredit, he’s drained all the excitement out of what is a taboo tale of a romance between the adult aesthete photographer and the nice girl 12-year-old prostitute by keeping all the bad stuff so tasteful and subdued. What results is an inert and boring morality tale that should please neither sensationalists nor puritans. The film’s most revolting scene has the virgin Brooke auctioned off for a mere $400 to the highest bidder; it’s most sensationalist scene has the 12-year-old Brooke in the nude and simulating sex.