Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Pretty Baby (1978 film)
Directed by Louis Malle and screenplay by Polly Platt from a story by Malle and Platt, Pretty Baby is the story of a 12-year old girl who works in New Orleans’ Red Light District in the early 20th Century as a prostitute. The film is an exploration into a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality as she watches her mother work as a prostitute where she is forced to be part of a world she is not ready for. Starring Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Keith Carradine. Pretty Baby is a compelling yet provocative film from Louis Malle.
Set in the Storyville area of New Orleans in 1917, the film revolves the young life of a 12-year old girl whose mother is a prostitute as she catches the eye of a photographer as she would become his muse and lover. It’s a film that plays into this young girl who comes of age during this time where she only knows the life of being in a whorehouse and tending to things at the place. Even as she would eventually become a prostitute herself where the result would have her grow up too fast. It’s a film that is set into a period in time where morals tend to fall by the wayside as it is about money and being fulfilled sexually while the women who prostitute themselves are using their sexuality to get what they want and hopefully have a better future.
Polly Platt’s screenplay uses this setting as a backdrop for this young girl coming of age where she wouldn’t just live with prostitutes, bartenders, cooks, musicians, and a brothel madam but also children who live and work in the house. It’s a world that is something where it has its own rules yet everyone helps each other out. For the character Violet (Brooke Shields), she is part of that world as she would help take care of the younger children, including her newborn baby brother Will, and give the brothel madam Nell (Frances Fay) what she needs if it’s cocaine or opium. It’s a world that gives Violet a sense of fulfillment but her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon) is tired of the life as she is quite immature at times as well as selfish. When the photographer E.J. Bellocq (Keith Carradine) comes in to do photographs, he is intrigued by Violet as he sees her as a young girl becoming a woman while being conflicted of being there for her and give her the life that she needs.
The script also has a very offbeat structure where much of the film is set in this brothel with very little places outside of it as it plays to the world that Violet lives in and how comfortable she is in this world of booze and sex. Even if she is too young for it as its second act has her lose her virginity to a man she doesn’t know and deal with her mother’s desire to leave the brothel. The third act would have Violet leave the brothel to stay at Bellocq’s where it’s a very different world with rules as well as Bellocq’s devotion to his work as a photographer. It’s also a moment where Violet not only faces the real world but also a world that is starting to change once World War I is ending.
Louis Malle’s direction is very exotic for the way he presents 1917 New Orleans by shooting on location in the city with its old buildings along with a few shots in Mississippi. Much of the compositions do play into some of the photos that the real E.J. Bellocq did during that time in the way Malle would place the characters into a frame or how he would set up a shot. A lot of it features some intricate medium shots for some of these scenes including the photos that Bellocq would create. There is a beauty to the brothel that Violet lives in as it’s very lively and has this air of sophistication mixed in with a bit of decadence. Yet, there’s an air of innocence that Malle captures in the film as he sees Violet have the energy of a child but also a woman who is quite mature but also immature.
Then there’s the sexuality of the film where there are scenes of Violet being nude as it is discomforting to watch. Especially since she is a 12-year old girl as it definitely borders the line of what is obscene yet it does play into not just Bellocq’s obsession towards her but also Violet’s own awareness of her sexuality. Even as there’s a shot of Violet lying on a couch for a photograph totally nude, with the exception of her genitalia, as it is very provocative in how it can bring a sense of discomfort but there’s a beauty to it. Even as Malle is aware of what he needed to say visually as it plays into Violet’s encounter with the real world where it is about order and morality just as the home she had known for all of her life becomes the target of everything that is wrong. Overall, Malle creates a very fascinating yet unsettling film about a young girl coming of age in early 20th Century New Orleans.
Cinematographer Sven Nykvist does incredible work with the film‘s cinematography as it is a major highlight of the film in terms of the attention to detail in its photography for many of its interior scenes and usage of naturalistic and artificial light along with . Editor Suzanne Fenn does excellent work with the editing as it is very straightforward as well as using rhythmic cuts to capture Violet‘s own sense of energy. Production designer Trevor Williams and set decorator James L. Berkey do amazing work with the look of the brothel in its state of glamour as well as how small the kitchen is along with the studio that Bellocq works at.
Sound mixer Donald F. Johnson does nice work with the sound to play into the atmosphere of the locations as well the mixture of live music and natural sounds in the mix. The film’s music by Ferdinand Morton is superb for its New Orleans jazz-based score while the rest of the soundtrack features the music of those times.
The casting by Gary Chason and Juliet Taylor is fantastic as it features some notable small performances from Matthew Anton as a young boy named Red Top, Barbara Steele as the prostitute Josephine, Mae Mercer as the cook Mama Mosebery, and Diana Scarwid as the European prostitute Frieda. Antonio Fargas is terrific as the piano player Professor who is a friend of the prostitutes while being the one to keep an eye on her at times. Frances Faye is excellent as the brothel madam Nell as a woman who runs the operation and make sure things go well while doing drugs to cope with her aging. Susan Sarandon is brilliant as Violet’s mother Hattie as a prostitute who has the beauty and body of a successful prostitute but becomes tired of the life as she is eager to want something new despite her selfishness.
Keith Carradine is amazing as E.J. Bellocq as the famed photographer who is entranced by Violet’s personality and beauty as he falls for her while wanting to be her protector. Finally, there’s Brooke Shields in a phenomenal performance as Violet as this 12-year old girl who is enamored by her environment while having a troubled relationship with her mother as she would fall with this photography as it’s a very exciting yet dangerous performance from Shields who was only 12 when she did the film and expose herself in that way.
Pretty Baby is a remarkable film from Louis Malle that features a breakthrough performance from Brooke Shields. While it is definitely not a film for everyone as it does border the line between what is obscene. It is still a captivating film that plays into the world of a young girl coming of age in early 20th Century New Orleans in one of its seediest moments in history. In the end, Pretty Baby is a enchanting film from Louis Malle.
Louis Malle Films: (The Silent World) - Elevator to the Gallows - The Lovers (1958 film - Zazie Dans Le Metro - (A Very Private Affair) - (Vive Le Tour) - The Fire Within - (Bons baisers de Bangkok) - (Viva Maria!) - (The Thief of Paris) - Spirits of the Dead-William Wilson - (Phantom India) - (Calcutta) - Murmur of the Heart - (Humain, Trop Humain) - Place de la Republique - Lacombe, Lucien - Black Moon - (Close Up (1976 short) - (Dominique Sanda ou Le reve eveille) - Atlantic City (1980 film) - (My Dinner with Andre) - Crackers - God’s Country (1985 film) - (Alamo Bay) - (And the Pursuit of Happiness) - Au Revoir Les Enfants - (May Fools) - (Damage (1992 film)) - (Vanya on 42nd Street)
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