Pretty Baby

Cherry auction
Louis Malle
Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, Keith Carradine, Antonio Fargas
The Setup: 
Civil War-era criminals hide out in a farmhouse and are menaced by demons.

This is one of those things I had always wanted to see, having been a teenager during the whole Brooke Shields/Blue Lagoon/Endless Love phenomenon, and having seen the psychological turmoil it wrought on my sisters. All I knew about it was that it was from the 70s, it was directed by Louis Malle [but didn't really know what that means], and that it starts a 12-year-old Brooke in some very sexual situations.

Which means I had no idea that it took place in a whorehouse in Storyville [the old seedy section of New Orleans] in 1917, and is essentially a slice-of-life thing of what it was like to be a young girl growing up in a whorehouse. The credits don't list it, but apparently this is based on a book, Storyville by Al Rose, and the photographer, Bellocq, is based on a real photographer, who was not sexually interested, but ended up taking photos of the whores of Storyville, and hence preserving a glimpse of a world soon completely eradicated.

First we see that this movie will feature Antonio Fargas [of Foxy Brown and Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch, and still working today], as well as Gerritt Graham [of Phantom of the Paradise—I regret to say I totally missed him here] and Barbara Steele [ditto on the missing]. Young Brooke, named Violet, watches her mother Hattie, played by Susan Sarandon, give birth. She goes downstairs and the movie goes from the quiet bedroom to the downstairs of this busy whorehouse. We see Violet hanging out in the house, how all the other prostitutes take care of her and how she's completely comfortable hanging out with them while they do their business. Fargas is the house piano player and singer, and I believe he does his own singing, if not playing here, and that's a very nice little treat. It's also nice to see him get a good, quiet dramatic role, since all I've seen him do is portray pimps and players.

A while later the newborn is crying and Violet slowly wakes her mother, which seemed to me one of the especially well-realized scenes of realism and tenderness that this movie has in spades. That morning Keith Carradine as Bellocq shows up, saying he'll pay the women just to photograph them. He photographs Hattie, wanting her not in her fine dress and not made up, and of course all of this fascinates little Violet. Hattie's still-drunk John comes down a few minutes later and causes a huge row, one of the many "slice-of-life" scenes the movie traffics in. Anyway, when Bellocq comes back to show them his finished photograph, all the women can't believe how beautiful she looks, and want one of themselves.

So there begins a simmering flirtation between Violet and Bellocq, who seems to come by just to hang around and watch what's going on in the house. At one point a guy gets violent, and someone hammers him over the head. The Madam lets him die, steals all the valuables his corpse has, then unrepentantly instructs the others to dump his body elsewhere. After a while Hattie wants to go off with this man and leave the house, but Violet refuses to go.

So Violet is getting more flirty with Bellocq, and at one point you can see the Madam watching carefully as an adult man starts coming on to her. Time to get the highest bid for Violet's cherry! First Violet and her mom take on a guy together, with Violet only giving oral, but soon enough she is brought in carried on a platform, in a bridal veil and holding a sparkler, paraded around a group of men as a prize. They put her at the front of the room and auction off her virginity. Afterwards, the women go up to find out how she is, and Brooke, who has been running off with the acting gold this whole time, gets extra points for her post-cherry-pop laughing-while-crying routine.

Soon Hattie accepts a man's marriage offer and moves out, leaving Violet there. Violet starts getting more and more snotty and belligerent, and finally runs away from the whorehouse. She finds Bellocq's place, and he says she can stay. It's not long before he's looking at her and saying "I'm all yours," and they're having sex [not shown]. The romance between Bellocq and Violet is apparently not known to be true about the historical Bellocq, although surely similar things happened. It is handled here quite well, I thought. Bellocq is not creepy or a predator, and Violet is still very much a child, not really sure what she's doing and what it means, as well as becoming petulant and tired and curious and breaking things, and the movie just treats it all very matter-of-factly.

After Violet gets scolded by Bellocq for breaking something, she returns to the whorehouse. The Storyville area is filled with people attempting to "clean up" the area, who make it very uncomfortable for Johns to visit the houses. The Madam goes insane, the women all leave, the furniture is carted out, and Violet has nowhere to go.

She runs into Bellocq in the street. He once more says she can stay, and soon enough they're married. There is a somewhat uncomfortable scene that shows them as a regular married couple, comfortable and in love. Then one day—Mom comes back! And she just expects to take Violet with her. And of course Violet isn't really going to say no, so, too bad for Bellocq. This is why it's best to avoid marriage with those under 15. Anyway, he's devastated, the end. The last shot is of the new stepdad taking a picture of the family, the same way Bellocq used to take pictures of Violet and her mother. Violet stares into his camera, which is OUR camera, drawing out our own complicity in watching a movie with such abundant adolescent nudity. BUSTED!

It was very well-done, wonderfully written, filmed and acted, but the reality is that this isn't a story proper so much as a construction designed to give us a dramatic tour of the Storyville whorehouse milieu of 1917. They characters are sort of composite characters that probably existed, and the events of the film are events that are very much like actual events. So in that way it's fine, but it lacks the drive and urgency that a movie that's written with a story to tell might have. When one is done watching this, one feels like one has read a good historical article.

Brooke Shields was kind of a revelation in this. She was so good, and the whole movie really centers on her. She never seems false or unnatural, seemingly genuinely smart and petulant and curious. Everyone else was good as well, and the script doesn't romanticize the whores or makes them seem like misunderstood saints in poor circumstances, as some movies do. The settings and outfits are all quite realistic and atmospheric, and throughout one has the sense that one is in the hands of a very assured filmmaker. You can see many of E.J. Bellocq's photographs yourself by doing a simple Google search for him. So a good movie, an interesting look at a lost world—just one that feels more like a good chapter of a book than a movie.

Sadly, I am unable to maintain the so-so-serious tone of this review as we ponder the vicissitudes of the modern cinema without mentioning that at one point Brooke sports a hat with a big upside-down mustache on it.

Nevertheless, a good movie with great characters about an underexplored milieu.

Should you watch it: 

If you're interested in that time period and milieu—or want to see hot 12-year-old flesh.