After Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Pretty Baby (1977) is perhaps the most popular metaphor symbolizing the cult of the girl child. Beyond that, this film features one of America’s most breathtaking beauties, Brooke Shields. Like most Malle films, a coherent plot is not paramount and, in this case, we are really seeing a series of vignettes expressing the human condition in a particular time and place. The story takes place in the 1917 New Orleans Storyville district. Such places, which were seen in many other big cities as well, were designated vice zones—presumably to keep them “contained”. They tended to be named after a particular alderman, whose role it was to placate a morally-outraged and fearful public. I read similar accounts of such a district in Chicago in Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul. In the opening scene, we see a closeup of Violet (Shields) watching as her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon)—one of the house whores—gives birth to a baby boy. Sarandon and Malle must have had a good working relationship because he also used her in his film, Atlantic City in 1980.
Although Violet is excited about having a baby brother, the others seem unmoved by the news. She is still considered a child but old enough to help around the house. There are other children there as well and they play together. Given the low status of prostitutes and their children, no one has any qualms about black and white children playing together or with Violet having friendly conversations with the exclusively black servants.
One day, Monsieur Bellocq (Keith Carradine) arrives and requests permission from the mistress of the house, Madam Livingston, to shoot some of the girls. Violet tries to size him up as he makes his case.
Malle has done his homework and has integrated real people and real anecdotes into his story to make it believable. E.J. Bellocq was a real photographer who seemed to have an obsession with shooting women who worked in brothels. However by all accounts, he was an ugly man and in no way resembled Carradine. Although he maintains a respectful distance from the bustle of house business, he does stick out like a sore thumb. Violet tries to chat him up to find out why he never goes upstairs with any of the girls. He gets upset when she calls him a cream puff and there is an ongoing tension between the two of them as she tries to validate that she is desirable while he has trouble opening up in this convivial environment. Shields must have been coached on her Southern accent which drops out at times in some of the more emotional scenes.
Apart from the obviously frank sexual world she was raised in, there is also the looming reality that she is growing up. In one scene, she practices her banter with one of the regulars in the joint and he plays along, but when Livingston suggests that he go upstairs with her, he is outraged and insists he was just kidding around. In another scene, her mother mentions that “she’s only for French” because of her age.
Finally comes the big night. Violet gets dolled up for her big debut and she is carried out on a platform for all the dinner guests to see before they bid on her. One of the guests indiscreetly asks what her age is and Livingston refuses to answer saying, “Do you want me to go to jail?” When I first saw this scene, it struck me how often I heard it mentioned that a girl of 12 is considered old enough to get into the “business”. Two examples come readily to mind: Sin in the Second City and Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) apparently inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Nell.
No matter how much Violet knows or practices, the first experience of intercourse is always a shock. Afterward, the ladies go upstairs to console her and Shields does a beautiful job of conveying a mixture of distress and laughter as they try to joke around about it. Despite the surface professionalism, we do see the dark side of this work.
One gets the feeling that all the younger women are pinning their hopes on meeting a man who will marry them and take them away. In order to achieve this, Hattie pretends that she and Violet are just sisters so that a prospective husband would not be turned off by the extra burden. Hattie and her new beau announce their marriage and Violet is left to fend for herself. But Hattie assures her that she will tell her husband the truth in time and come back for her later.
The title Pretty Baby itself speaks to the contradictory signals a young girl must get about being both too young and too old. In one scene, she is taking an innocent bath when Livingston shows up with a customer. In an instinctive display of modesty, she covers herself with a towel as they enter. But this is no place for that and the madam whisks away the towel so the john can see what he is paying for.
Bellocq has meanwhile become a regular fixture in the place and all the whores are quite friendly with him and have given him the nickname “Papa”. They are horsing around the house and decide to play Sardines. Violet is the first to find him and takes this moment alone to kiss him. She can finally assure the other girls that he is not a cream puff.
As mentioned before, Violet is allowed to play with all the other children, both black and white. However, there are limits. She teases the boys about being virgins and they insist they are not. She and the white boy get carried away and Violet manages to pin the little black boy down. The remarkable thing about cultural improprieties is that they are enforced equally severely by members of both races in the house.
We get small clues throughout the film that, because of her great beauty, Violet is a little spoiled. This abrupt interruption of her innocent and naive play made her angry enough to run away to stay with Bellocq. He is quite civil with her and she has to push hard to break through his barriers, but he finally gives in.
When she wakes up the next morning, he is not there but there is some food out and a note. We find out a little later that she cannot read and so did not know where he was. Here we see her share her meal with a cat.
Naturally, he makes use of this turn of events and gets her to pose for him.
It would have been easy for Malle to indulge in a little fantasy here and pretend Violet is more mature than she really is. But more realistically, she tires of all this posing and the two of them get into a fight. Another interesting detail is that she scratches up one of his glass negatives. In fact, one of the peculiar expressions of ambivalence by the real Bellocq was that most of his images were violently scratched out—perhaps a strange form of self-censorship or punishment.
She tries to return to the brothel, but there are protesters outside; it seems inevitable that this establishment is going to be shut down. Violet ups the ante by dressing up in her finest outfit and proposing marriage to Bellocq. We are given a respite from the tension of the story as the couple goes out to celebrate with the other women as they make plans for their future.
The thing that impressed me about Malle is how skillfully he draws the audience into the plight of this young girl. Sure, Bellocq is not perfect, but for the most part, Violet has done well for herself and is a self-possessed young woman. It’s hard not to want a happy Hollywood ending for this couple, despite the ethical ambiguity. The tables are suddenly turned when Hattie and her husband show up, ready to take her to a new home. All of a sudden, she is transformed from a woman back into a little girl. The final shot is of her standing with her mother and little brother as her new stepfather takes a family snapshot at the train station.
In a sense, Malle satisfied the Hollywood censors by offering us this moral ending, but he makes no bones about keeping us in the air about what is really best for Violet. Even the business about the snapshot at the end is a kind of statement about the superficiality of conventional family life. Living the life of an artist is a rich but risky adventure—represented by the fussy and perfectionistic Bellocq—and flouts society’s conventions. While the proper family life—represented by the mundane family portrait—offers security along with a dull lifestyle which may not appeal to everyone.
This lynchpin post opens the door to some other important work involving Brooke Shields. A number of noted photographers have shot her and I intend to feature three of them here: Garry Gross, Francesco Scavullo and Steve Mills. Not all of her experiences with these artists were salutory which may be why when Shields was cast for The Blue Lagoon (1980), body doubles were used for all the nude scenes.
 A loyal reader sent some private comments about the Nell character. “I think “Nell” should be “Nellie” or “Nelly”. It seems that the character is inspired by Dickens’ Nell but in Dostoevsky she is called Nellie/Nelly (Нелли, from Elena).” Thank you for these details. -Ron