"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 4, 2012

"Pretty Baby" by Louis Malle

Pretty Baby, an American film made in 1978 by French director Louis Malle, tells the story of the last days of Storyville, New Orleans' fabled red-light district. The area counted over 2,000 prostitutes, 70 professional gamblers and 30 piano players. In 1917, it was closed down by the U.S. Navy, due to the country's entry into WWI. These years also saw the end of the ragtime era of Scott Joplin which gave way to the improvisational swing of the Jazz Age. A pivotal figure in that transition was Jelly Roll Morton (1885-1941), who appears in the film as a piano player called "The Professor" (portrayed by Antonio Fargas) and whose rags syncopate the visuals.

Even more important for the film is the character of professional photographer John Ernest Joseph Bellocq (1873-1949), who worked in New Orleans during the early 20th century and took haunting photographs on glass plates of the prostitutes of Storyville (a strong role played by Keith Carradine). In its settings and costumes, the film beautifully brings Bellocq's photography to life. One is reminded of Degas, or Toulouse-Lautrec. The cinematography is by Sven Nykvist.

The story of the film is less important than the images and atmosphere. It is a sort of "Memoirs of a Geisha," American-style, about growing up in a house of pleasure. The central character, through whose eyes we see the events, is Violet (Brooke Shields), the 12-year old daughter of Hattie (Susan Sarandon) - both mother and daughter live in the elegant bordello of Madame Nell (Frances Faye), where Hattie works while Violet babysits the various incidental children. When the modest Ernest J. Bellocq happens to come by at an early hour to take photos of the ladies, they are the only ones awake. He takes pictures of Hattie and befriends Violet who is fascinated by his camera equipment.

Over the next few months, coke-sniffing Nell arranges for the auction of Violet's virginity ($400) in a dramatic grand-guignol scene. Hattie manages to catch a reliable husband from among her clients and goes to St. Louis but Violet decides to stay behind. Eventually, she runs away from Madame Nell and goes to live with the friendly photographer, who finally even marries her out of compassion - there is a strong hint that he is not sexually interested in women and the marriage anyway is not a success due to Violet's childishness. Bellocq is more like a foster parent taking care of a brat.

Eventually, Hattie and her husband come to reclaim Violet and take her to their home in St. Louis - the most poignant moment in the film is when Bellocq asks her if she wants to go back with her mother or stay with him, and she answers "Can't we all go?" At that moment, it is clear he has lost her.

Pretty Baby is a gentle and tender film. Malle constantly demolishes voyeuristic expectations, and has filmed this difficult subject in good taste, a sign of his artistry. Brooke Shields is natural in her role, both childishly innocent and mature for her years, but without any cheapness.

My evaluation: 9 points out of 10 for the piano player. The title of the film was inspired by a Tony Jackson song from the same period, which is heard on the soundtrack.  
Ebert.