Pretty Baby (1979, dir. Louis Malle) has the feel of a documentary, a supposedly neutral, objective account of the lives of prostitutes in Storyville, LA, just before the start of the First World War. The lack of a conventional point of view, of clues that in some way would allow us to see this film through a lens of conventional morality or social analysis, makes it difficult and disturbing to watch. We are confronted with the issue of a 12-year-old girl running around in a whorehouse, or of her virginity being auctioned off to the highest bid, or of her posing nude for an admiring photographer. We must also consider the very fact of the film’s having been made, and even more than that, of our act of watching the film. Does Malle wish us all to feel complicit in the life of this 12-year old girl in Storyville, or in the use of the 12-year-old girl actress in the film itself? Or is complicity for him not an issue. Is his own private pathology at work here? Or are all these forces at work? Is morality (that entirely relativistic, subjective concept) not an issue at all? Is he simply documenting history without passing judgment?
The lens is narrow—the film is set almost entirely within a whore house, and it focuses on the lives of the women within it. Only towards the end do we move outside the barriers that divide the house from the rest of the world, and even then it is to the house of the photographer whose obsession is photographing prostitutes. The entire film takes place within a frame of apparent unreality. When Violet throws a young black playmate to the ground and demands that he “do it” with her on the spot, a black woman comes out of the house and lectures her on the difference between the world outside the walls of the whorehouse and the world within, the white world and the black world. This is a rare moment when the film moves beyond itself to stress the notion of the whorehouse as an isolated enclave of pretense, fantasy, and self-indulgence cut off from the reality of the world outside, where men are preparing to go off to war and die, where racial codes are in play.
The two slight plots have to do with Violet and her prostitute mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon). Hattie wins the affections of a contractor from St. Louis who proposes marriage. Hattie accepts, having told him that Violet is really her sister. (The film suggests that middle-class respectability outside the whorehouse is what all the women who work there long for). She promises to come fetch Violet after she’s able to tell him the truth. The other plot follows the interest of the photographer Bellocq (Keith Carradine) in taking pictures of the prostitutes. He’s especially interested in Violet, falls in love with her, and towards the end of the film marries her in a ceremony that turns out to be illegal because she is under age.
The film invites us to speculate about Bellocq and his interest in Violet. She’s not entered puberty yet, and is boylike in appearance. Does she attract him because she looks like a boy, because of her appearance of innocence (she is, after a fashion, innocent)? Does the film mean to present him as a homosexual, or a pederast, or an innocent and sincere man, or what? With our consciousness in 2014 of the sexual victimization of children, of child pornography, we view this film through a lens that might not have been available when it was made. In fact, the film was made in pre-Internet days when pornography was not easily accessible to the masses, and the large and disturbing child pornography industry was much smaller and better hidden than it is today. The film itself is not pornographic, though some might consider it so. However, it does raise questions about the exploitation of children—both within the plot of the film and in the larger world where viewers sit and watch the performance of the 12-year-old Brooke Shields.
Although the whore house is a small portion of the larger landscape of the American South, it enshrines notions of Southern masculinity and gentility. The prostitutes dress as if they are refined upper class Southern women. They are, at least in the public part of the whorehouse, treated with respect and deference by their patrons (there are exceptions). It’s all a pretense, of course, a manifestation of the sexual double standard that pervaded Southern life for decades. The whorehouse provides a space where Southern gentleman can with their prostitute of choice subvert with impunity the codes of Old Southern gentility and respect for womanhood.
In the end, Violet’s mother and her husband come to fetch Violet. They’ve made the transition to respectable middle-class life. They dress as respectable middle-class citizens. Hattie wants Violet to go to school and to have a proper rearing. Bellocq protests, weakly. The transition is sudden and shocking. In the film’s final image, Violet’s new stepfather takes her photo in front of the train with a handheld camera (different from the old-fashioned one that Bellocq lugs around and laboriously sets up). We see her in the frozen image both as a normal 12-year-old child and as a young women whose shadowy look of uncertainty, skepticism, doubt (whatever it is) suggest to us—what?
In one scene Violet’s virginity is being auctioned off to a room full of mostly middle-aged white men. They’re portly, laughing, cigar-smoking men. As they call out their bids, a black piano player stands nearby watching. The look on his face grows increasingly dark and grievous. The parallelism between this scene and that of a slave auction is too obvious, but the point is made clearly enough.