Thursday, July 03, 2014

Movie review: Pretty Baby

The 1978 film, Pretty Baby, was a controversial study of sex work and underaged sexual conduct set during the early 20th Century. These days, it has become something of a late Seventies curiosity, rarely seen and infrequently critiqued. Because in time more severe sexual mores have developed regarding depictions of childhood sexual abuse in the media, it would be difficult to make a film on this subject today. Child prostitution is considered an extreme societal problem, especially in the Third World, but it afflicts our own society in sufficient numbers. Pretty Baby lays its scene at the gorgeously trashy New Orleans red light district circa 1917.

A twelve-year-old Brooke Shields plays her part as Venus flawlessly, opening the way for other major studio roles and eventual great fame. Only two years before, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 blockbuster Taxi Driver featured another underage hooker in a prominent role, this time played by Jodi Foster. Unlike Venus, Foster’s Iris is not cloistered in the relative security of a whorehouse by a woman how at least tries her hand at motherhood. She’s a teenage runaway under the sway of a pimp. Venus’ existence and steady employment are preserved by a more-or-less permissive climate where prostitution is legal and where she is in control over her own life to some extent.

Scorsese’s film paints the role of Iris, the prostitute, as the victim of a sleazy, decaying, filthy system over which she has no control. In contrast, director Louis Malle makes fewer moral judgments with his work, showing Brooke Shields’ character as more resigned, unapologetic, and indebted to her chosen occupation. Some of the men are in her orbit are slimeballs, but the nature of their business does not need to resort to violence before conflicts can somehow be redeemed. Venus embraces the system unquestioningly, but the film makes us question whether if she is fully aware of the overlap in her life roles, those of the adult, the child, and the somewhere in between.

Venus falls in love with a local photographer E. J. Bellocq (Keith Carradine), who has been taking pictures of prostitutes to make money. At first, he resists her numerous advances, due to her young age, but later he concedes that he’s fallen in love with her. Bellocq wonders from the outset whether the relationship would really work and whether he’d be seen as violating propriety, even though a very different standard of acceptable feminine attitudes apply to any so-called fallen woman. That said, the two lovers certainly aren’t held to the same standards of purity. Venus comes to his house late one night unannounced, whereupon the two finally consummate their relationship.

He finds, quite quickly, that the idea of a nubile lover might be arousing in fantasy, but that Venus is quite a handful. Bellocq grows frustrated with her childish acts of rebellion and rethinks if whether having a child for a lover is really worth the strain. She pours out expensive photographic chemicals for spite and destroys glass negatives as a way of acting out, costing him money. In his company, she is half-child and half-woman, much as the moment strikes her.

Controversial in addition were graphic scenes and depictions of Brooke Shields, who at 12 was still several years under the age of consent and could not even be considered a teenager. In one, Venus poses in an almost completely nude setting, the section of the reel that caused the most critical histrionics and outrage. Some critics at the time called these scenes “child pornography” and others felt the film was a mashup of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita and Roman Polanski. In any case, Pretty Baby made Shields a star, and as for whether these sections are gratuitous or not. I’ll leave the matter up to the viewer.

Questions remain. What is the theme of the picture? We know somehow that its star is Venus, who due to her age is not quite an adult but still very much a child. Nevertheless, to reiterate, she lives in an environment that rewards adult sexual behavior. We observe that many men want to buy her services for the sheer novelty of it. They bid for her virginity, and the winning contestant ponies up $500 for the privilege. Only the photographer Bellocq appears to love her as she is, or at least as he imagines her to be.

Though beautifully photographed, Pretty Baby has a tendency to meander. Its plot rambles, unsure whether to fully incorporate interesting, but secondary players like Hattie (Susan Sarandon) or Madam Nell Livingston (Frances Faye). Halfway through we are treated to an extended interlude of Venus and her destructive nature. Does the director believe that all young girls possess this same destructive impulsiveness, or is this behavior only unusual to the character?

Bellocq’s interest in her may largely be because of her photogenic propensities, a mere academic study. Earlier in the film, he resists repeated sexual advances from other prostitutes, begging that he is married to his work. Venus may merely be a subject, a muse of a sort, and his affection may be scientific rather than heartfelt. While what we do certainly see is easy boredom and frustration from Venus, as she misbehaves and destroys some important object or another to him.

French director Louis Malle tried his hand at American cinema for the first time with Pretty Baby. Taken through a typical French perspective, the sexuality would be less shocking. But with a mostly American cast, criticism was intense and forceful. It must be said that it is a little creepy to auction off a young girl’s virginity, and it might be objectionable as to whether or not a twelve-year-old girl has any business with a boyfriend more than twice her age. The film is worth a look, if only for the scandalous content, but must be taken first with several grains of salt.

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