Our theme for this week is films that have inspired critical outrage, and I'd like to say that I chose to write about Louis Malle's Pretty Baby on my own, but Phil actually urged me to write about it when he found out that I'd never seen it. Good call, Phil.
If Pretty Baby were released today, I can imagine it would still inspire discomfort and maybe even a little outrage -- and I can't imagine many filmmakers working today would make a similar film. Maybe another French filmmaker like Malle. Maybe Lars Von Trier. Here is what you probably know about Pretty Baby if you haven't seen it (and all I knew about it going into it): it's a period drama that features a 12-year-old Brooke Shields playing a 12-year-old prostitute, and there are scenes in which Shields is nude or involved in sexually suggestive scenarios. That's likely enough to make you cringe and shy away from it. But you shouldn't.
Pretty Baby is a melancholic portrait of a young girl coming of age, the victim of unfortunate circumstance: born into a Louisiana brothel like her mother before her and her mother before her. Violet (Shields) is stuck in that precarious place between girlhood and womanhood, mimicking the women she's surrounded by and doing what she thinks will make men happy. She is sexualized and objectified as if she were a woman, but when she tries to take any agency for herself, she's still just an obnoxious and naive little girl, and she's punished accordingly for her willfulness.
The film takes place in 1917, during the last legal months of prostitution in New Orleans' red light district, but its tragic themes are unfortunately timeless. Violet is expected to behave and mind her elders like a child, but she's also expected to care for the younger children in the brothel -- an accidental mother in training. She caters to the needs of the madam like a maid, loading her pipe and fetching her absinthe, while answering to the beck and call of her own mother -- who lies and tells all her Johns that Violet is just her sister. Violet is expected to be an adult when it's beneficial and practical, and a child when it's convenient.
Pretty Baby is far more contemplative than the whispers of shock over young Brooke Shields' nudity. What's far more fascinating is Shields' performance as a girl vacillating between childhood and adulthood, fluttering wildly like a bird caught in a cage. Susan Sarandon also turns in a wonderful performance as her mother: the frustrated Hattie who feels hopelessly stuck and who, like so many women at the time, has only one option to elevate her situation: a man ... specifically one with money.
A recurring theme throughout the film is posturing and posing as Keith Carradine plays a photographer named Bellocq who makes himself a permanent fixture around the brothel, taking pictures of Hattie and Violet; falling in love with the former and later with the latter. In front of a camera we transform into something more alluring, more exhilarating; we are liberated from ourselves and less inhibited. We believe that the act of having our photo taken means that we are worthy of being immortalized, that we are more valuable. For Violet, this act of being photographed plays into her adult posturing and enables her charade. It is not much different from the 12- and 13-year-olds of today who make pouty faces and take suggestive photos for Facebook, enraging their fathers.
To set this particular coming of age story in this place and time is incredibly thoughtful: one of the last operating brothels in New Orleans during the last legal months of prostitution, a place where a woman has the upper hand in terms of her sexuality, and where a young girl's loss of virginity is a thing of ceremony -- her coming of age (however early and discomforting to us) a thing to be celebrated, not shunned.
I can certainly understand the discomfort the film inspires, but that's the intention -- but I think it's also worth contemplating why you might feel so troubled by a film that explores a young girl's coming of age and sexual curiosity; a film that examines what life might be like for a girl who is struggling between girlhood and adulthood, expected to be an adult and sexualized as one, yet punished for behaving instinctually as a child. Maybe it's not the film that bothered people so much, but the reality of it. One of the most controversial concepts in the world is a young woman's sexuality, after all.