Louis Malle, Part 3: Pretty Baby

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (1)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (1)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (2)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (2)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (3)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (3)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (4)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (4)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (5)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (5)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (6)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (6)

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (7)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (7)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (8)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (8)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (9)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (9)

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (10)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (10)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (11)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (11)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (12)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (12)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (13)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (13)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (14)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (14)

Naturally, he makes use of this turn of events and gets her to pose for him.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (15)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (15)

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (16)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (16)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (17)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (17)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (18)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (18)

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (19)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (19)

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.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (20)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (20)

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.

Louis Malle, Part 2: Black Moon

The first thing that strikes most people when they first watch Black Moon (1975) is that it is hard to follow. Any film or novel that makes extensive use of “stream of consciousness” narrative will not be comprehended by most people at first. So why do such things exist? My contention is that this is dream imagery—imagery from the subconscious—that an artist is compelled to express in an effort to understand it himself. Personal motivations aside, these creations do nevertheless have value to others because dreams make extensive use of archetypal symbols which we can all appreciate with proper education.

It is a little bit of a stretch to include this film on Pigtails in Paint. The lead character, Lily (Cathryn Harrison), is on the cusp of womanhood which is on the high side of our age range. However, the presence of naked children is a recurring motif and part of our agenda is to remove the stigma of such imagery in our culture. And Louis Malle makes extensive use of Lewis Carroll’s Alice imagery, so that makes this film appropriate in a number of tangential ways.

The opening shot is of a badger rooting around until Lily speeds by in a small car. She stops to look at it with a blank expression on her face. It is not clear at this point, but this establishes the idea that as a young woman, she is intimately connected to nature and is compelled to pay attention to it. As she continues her journey, she comes upon some military troops and watches as they execute some prisoners. There is the suggestion that this is a manifestation of a war of the sexes with the aggressors playing out the male role and the more passive women (and their male allies) playing the victims. The presence of the battle in the periphery throughout the film creates a convincing substrate of anxiety. I also feel it is a reflection of Malle’s experience as a boy in Vichy France—Au Revoir Les Enfants and Lacombe, Lucien are two excellent portrayals of the German occupation. One of the soldiers approaches her car and whisks off her cap; thus exposed, she drives off in panic.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (1)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (1)

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (2)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (2)

On her way, she observes more vignettes of nature communicating with her and another military scene of a prisoner being beaten. In her flight she falls, giving herself a bloody nose—symbolic of the onset of menstruation. Her first sign of civilization is a horsewoman—whom she mistakes for a man—who seems to scrutinize her before cantering off. Then she encounters a group of naked boys acting as swineherds.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (3)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (3)

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (4)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (4)

She finally comes upon a house and enters. There are many signs that the place is inhabited: a lit fire, food cooking on the stove, etc.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (5)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (5)

By this time, the surreal tone is already suggestive of Lewis Carroll’s tales, but we begin to see specific examples: a glass of milk indicative of the “Drink Me! Eat Me!” scene. Lily even has to strain to reach the glass as though she were too small. Across the table is a piglet (The Duchess’ Baby) grunting seemingly in protest and the sound of the piano in the other room is actually a cat walking on the keys (The Cheshire Cat). The milk, however, is a clear symbol of motherhood.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (6)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (6)

Another important recurring character is a rather shabby unicorn. Clearly a symbol of the girl’s maidenhood, Lily’s interaction with this creature illustrates her progress in coming to terms with her adult sexuality and accepting the passing of her youth. Unicorns are post-medieval* symbols of lust, but as strictly fantastic creatures, we understand that we are witnessing the machinations of this girl’s subconscious.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (7)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (7)

Hearing noises upstairs, she explores the house further and finds an old woman (Thérèse Giehse, in a kind of Red Queen role) speaking to a rat (The Dormouse) in a strange mixture of Germanic and Latin sounding languages. Next to her is a radio symbolizing Lily’s connection to the outside, real world. In her first encounter with the woman, Lily has an altercation with her and believes she has died.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (8)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (8)

She hears singing outside and sees a young man tending the grounds. She goes outside to look for him and comes upon him suddenly.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (9)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (9)

Dissatisfied with the old woman’s communication, Lily tries to get a straight answer from this man (Joe Dallesandro). She finds that he only communicates telepathically and is also named Lily. She turns and sees the horsewoman and the naked children now joined by some girls all shepherding a hog and some sheep. The horsewoman is the man’s sister (Alexandra Stewart) and is named Lily as well. The coincidence of the names points to the fact that Brother Lily and Sister Lily are the girl’s alter egos, representing the Animus and the Shadow in Jungian psychology. The twin motif is also suggestive of Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (10)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (10)

Throughout the film, the twins serve as models of Lily’s impending role: Sister Lily as caregiver and Brother Lily as seducer. Both represent the more impulsive aspects of their gender roles while the old woman represents the more rational. Brother and Sister Lily return to the old woman’s room and revive her; Sister then allows the old woman to suckle at her breast. After witnessing this, Lily sits provocatively in a chair (in a Balthus-like pose) while Brother comes by and sensuously caresses her bare leg. Alarmed by this development, she withdraws suddenly and is then locked in the room alone with the old woman. One at a time, each alarm clock (The White Rabbit’s Pocket Watch) goes off and in a rage of denial, Lily throws them each out the window. The clocks are a call back to reality but also symbolic of a woman’s “biological clock”. She is then humiliated by the old woman as her panties fall down inexplicably, yet another expression of sexual denial.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (11)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (11)

She escapes when she sees the unicorn again and tracks it down. The unicorn is the only character that speaks plainly to her and she wishes she could continue speaking with it indefinitely. After this, she experiences a shift in her relationship to the children: at first personally associating with them as a fellow child and then acknowledging her role as caregiver. She again observes Sister Lily modeling the caregiving role by feeding the children. She decides to accept her role and now when the old woman makes suckling sounds, Lily feeds her from her own breast. This strange scene is reminiscent of the final passage in The Grapes of Wrath with Rose of Sharon suckling the old man.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (12)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (12)

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (13)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (13)

This rite of passage is commemorated in the film by a performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde with Lily playing the piano accompaniment and two of the children playing the leads. The choice of subject matter is instructive; the Tristan and Isolde story came into full blossom in the troubadour era and is about a young couple who fall in love but don’t realize it. The drama is escalated when the couple drink a love potion they mistake for wine.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (14)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (14)

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (15)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (15)

Lily then witnesses a violent scene as Brother Lily kills an eagle with a sword and then Brother and Sister begin fighting tooth and nail, perhaps representing the unresolved tension between the sexes in our society. Lily returns upstairs—the old woman is now gone—and assumes her role: sleeping in her bed and trying to work the radio. A snake appears, an obvious phallic symbol, and slithers into the bed. It appears that Louis Malle does not regard womanhood as a liberation, but an obligation to be meekly accepted. Lily’s expression is of passive resignation and not consistent with the notions of sexual freedom of that period.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (16)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (16)

In the final scene, Lily gets closure with the unicorn which suddenly appears. This time it says nothing and Lily dutifully bares her breasts as it makes suckling sounds. In fact, this is the freeze frame at the end of the film. The significance of this is that in satiating the unicorn, she is able to let go of her attachment to her childhood innocence and fantasy.

Louis Malle - Black Moon (1975) (17)

Louis Malle – Black Moon (1975) (17)

I would like to thank Pip for his contribution in analyzing this film. Without his help, it would have been a lot more work for me to put this all together.

The last installment of the Louis Malle films will be Pretty Baby starring Brooke Shields.

*I erred in my original assumption that this was a medieval symbol.  After some of Christian’s comments and some more follow up on my part, I realize the symbol belongs to the late 15th Century (but possibly earlier).  Please read the comments below for a clarification.  In an effort to get so much information out, there are bound to be errors like this and I will correct them as needed.  It is not my intent to deceive or misrepresent historical paradigms.  -Ron

Louis Malle, Part 1: Zazie dans le métro

Even before I met Pip Starr, I made an attempt to acquaint myself with some of the great directors of foreign films—foreign to Americans, anyhow. Louis Malle (1932–1995) is an interesting case in point because he began as a French film director and later directed American films. I had seen a number of his films including Pretty Baby, but when I first discussed Malle with Pip, he told me about two films I had not heard of: Zazie dans le métro (1960) and Black Moon. The three films are quite different from each other and yet they each feature a young girl playing a leading role in the film. I will be reviewing the other two shortly.

Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) is a 10-year-old girl who is dropped off for a couple of days to stay with an uncle living in Paris. It is explained that Jeanne, the mother, does this every so often when she has a whirlwind romance with someone new. Here the girl is affectionately greeting her uncle, Gabriel.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (1)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (1)

One of the things she is looking forward to taking a ride on the Métro, the city’s rail line. She is disappointed to learn that it is shut down due to a worker’s strike.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (2)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (2)

As she is driven to her uncle’s flat, we get a clear picture of her impertinent and refreshing candor in dealing with the adults in her world. Gabriel’s wife Albertine prepares dinner and Zazie talks about becoming a schoolteacher. Why? Because, in her mischief, she wants the pleasure of driving each new class of students crazy!

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (3)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (3)

After going to bed, she is roused by a visit from the landlord who insists that Gabriel not keep that brat in his place.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (4)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (4)

After overhearing this, she does whatever she can to make trouble for him. In the morning, before her uncle gets up, she dresses and goes out on the town without an escort. The landlord notices this and chases her. She escapes by making a scene and telling the people who gather that he said some bad things to her so that the group mobs him.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (5)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (5)

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (6)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (6)

She goes back to the Métro entrance to find that it is still shut down. She bawls melodramatically until a man shows up with a sock puppet to cheer her up. Although he insists that he simply loves children, she is no fool. She calls him a dirty old man but, as you can see, she does so playfully and goes along with him anyway to the marketplace.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (7)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (7)

She cons him into buying her a pair of jeans and he treats her to lunch. Here we see her checking herself out in the mirror with her new acquisition.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (8)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (8)

After lunch, she abruptly runs off and the man chases after her. It is apparent by this point in the film that many of the scenes were shot by slowing the film stock to parody the fast motion of a silent slapstick film. In an interesting scene, she hides among a set of identically dressed mannequins to confuse the pursuer.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (9)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (9)

After a series of comical and melodramatic tactics, she laughs maniacally after making her final escape.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (10)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (10)

She puts on her new blue jeans before going out again with her uncle and his chauffeur, Charles. It appears that the film maker was using the jeans as a symbol of a Zazie’s growing up.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (11)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (11)

They begin at the Eiffel tower and as she and Charles are climbing down—they get momentarily separated from Gabriel—they have a frank but comical conversation about homosexuality, how some girls get married at 12 and why Charles isn’t married.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (12)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (12)

The film gets increasingly surreal as it progresses so, suffice it to say, Zazie is swept along in a series of adventures involving the antics and interactions between Madame Mouaque, a policeman and the rest of the characters.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (13)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (13)

The amusing irony is that by the time the Métro is running again, Zazie is so exhausted, she sleeps through the whole thing.

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (14)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (14)

When her mother picks her up and asks her if anything happened, she simply answers “I got older.”

Louis Malle - Zazie dans le métro (1960) (15)

Louis Malle – Zazie dans le métro (1960) (15)

The film is remarkable the way it deals with serious subjects in such a light-hearted way. Never does the viewer feel that Zazie is in any real danger. Somehow, she knows how to handle herself and whenever characters take themselves too seriously, they are made to appear foolish.