1917, the last months of legal prostitution in Storyville - New Orleans' red-light district. Hattie, a prostitute at the elegant home of Madame Nell, and her 12-year-old daughter Violet are the only ones awake with photographer Ernest J. Bellocq comes by with his camera. He takes pictures of Hattie and he fascinates Violet. Over the next few months, Nell arranges for the auction of Violet's virginity, Hattie marries and goes to St. Louis leaving Violet behind, and Violet determines to marry Bellocq. Is this idyllic or is she just a girl wearing rouge, soon to return to childhood?
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
Seret Scott ... Flora
Cheryl Markowitz ... Gussie
Susan Manskey ... Fanny
Laura Zimmerman ... Agnes
Miz Mary ... Odette
Gerrit Graham ... Highpockets
Mae Mercer ... Mama Mosebery
A beautifully filmed movie which tells a difficult story with a subtlety and power that leaves you thinking about it during odd moments for days. It's that much more disconcerting because all the while you're keenly aware that this isn't based on "a true story" but on millions of true stories throughout history, including today, and in every part of the globe.
Due to my age I'd never seen 'Pretty Baby' in the theater or, for some reason, read much about it. I was aware of the basic plot but didn't know I'd be seeing quite so much of a naked 12 year-old Brooke Shields. A couple of moments were honestly difficult for me to watch, but I've come to the conclusion that the nudity is absolutely essential to the telling of the story. You *have* to be forced to see exactly what those men were paying for.
The brilliance of director Loius Malle's film is that he constantly subverts the audience's desire to be aghast at what we see. The camera finds happy little moments throughout the movie, your mind is left to fill in the ugly realities. This trend continues to the end, which is like a cruel mirror image of the typical happily ever after Hollywood ending.
Louis Malle is one of the late geniuses of film. "Pretty Baby" is one of his most beautiful achievements. Telling the story of a lonely photographer's obsession with a precocious twelve-year old prostitute named Violet(Brooke Shields) in New Orleans early in the century.
The photographer (Keith Carradine) eventually allows Violet to move in with him, and then marries her. In a wonderful scene, Carradine buys Violet a baby doll. She is thrilled, but then asks why he bought her a doll. "Every child should have a doll" he replies. Shields reaction is perfect, she is angered that he still thinks of her as a child, but cannot help but play with the doll in the very next scene.
Shields hits all the right notes here. She goes from sexy and alluring, to childish and innocent with a snobbish pout. She is charmingly free-spirited from being raised in a brothel, and often appears totally naked in front of strange men many times her age. Prostitution is all that she knows, and Malle does not shy away from it.
This film was largely shunned when it was first released. It seems, having read some of the other comments here, that the trend continues. This is a mature film, for mature minds. See it and enjoy.
One is Brooke Shields in her only believable performance, as a defiant self-absorbed brat who learns not just about sex but about love. She is, of course, dazzlingly beautiful and barely pubescent and it's necessary to get beyond that. Value judgments about whether she should or should not have made this movie aren't really relevant. The movie is too good for that. Throwing up our hands and rolling our eyes is a little like interpreting "Lolita" as a simple story about pedophilia. Looked at pragmatically, Shields' playing this role hurt no one. Certainly it didn't hurt her subsequent career, what there was of it. There isn't any way to stop our own feelings of disgust at times, granted. I feel that way about movies like Friday the 13th or Halloween. I'm more disgusted by murder than by sex so I'm clearly warped. Shields packs more talent into her playing here, as Violet, than she did into all of her other movies put together. And it's not a one-note performance either. She develops from a vulgar know-it-all into a creature of real emotion. At the end of the story, her mother is taking her away from the older man she has married. The camera slowly moves in on her trembling face. She's silent but the froufraws in her hair quiver with regret. Malle ends it on a freeze frame of that drop-dead gorgeous, wrenchingly sad face.
Malle is another reason this movie is worth while. He was a great story teller, even when the stories were a bit thin, as Polly Platt's is here. His specialite de la maison was the study of a community. He was almost anthropological in his approach. If he doesn't give us the social structure and eidos of a French boarding school, then it's Atlantic City, or a New Orleans whorehouse in 1917. We get to know the milieu pretty well, although we don't see much of the actual city, only the house itself, its back yard paved with coquina crunching under everyone's shoes, the palms and banana plants, the anoles. We get to know the furniture inside the house -- massive heavy things, overstuffed, overdone, overlaced, rose windowed. New Orleans was an odd city, a blend of all sorts of ethnic traditions. There's a bit of hoodoo thrown into the plot. (Madame Livingston addresses her clients as "M'sieur.") Edgar Degas visited relatives in New Orleans. Now, alas, it's becoming not much more than another big Southern city with the Quarter serving as a kind of theme park. Note too Malle's editing technique. When you expect a shot to disappear, to dissolve or be cut away from, it doesn't always happen. The image lingers, sometimes long beyond our expectations. Keith Carradine balked when Shields is taken away from him, for instance.
Much of this beauty (let's call a heart a heart) is made possible by the superb photography of Ingmar Bergman's collaborator, Sven Nyquist. He makes it possible for us to almost feel the heat and the humidity, and the solid mahogany of the bar.
The depiction of the cat house is convincingly realistic, the general atmosphere being one of casual jealousy, petulance, nudity, practicality, and mutual support. The women (and the clients) form fleeting friendships. When they leave, it's without any particular ceremony. That's why the love that develops between Carradine and Shields is as shocking as it is. It's the only real commitment shown in the film. There is an abundance of commitment on the part of the people who contributed to this very good film.