In the early 1970s Al Rose interviewed people associated with the legal brothels which flourished in New Orleans from 1889 to 1917. He published the results in Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red Light District (University of Alabama P, 1974). That book inspired a fictionalized account, which became one of the most notorious films of the 1970s. Written by Polly Platt and directed by Louis Malle, Pretty Baby (1978) features Susan Sarandon as a prostitute and 12-year-old Brooke Shields as her precocious daughter. The film has been called both a masterpiece of cinema and a work of child pornography. Many regions have banned it outright, largely because of nude scenes involving the adolescent Shields. Perhaps the oddest situation exists in Ontario, Canada, where the film is barred from movie theatres but has been permitted on television, which is subject to a different set of laws and protocols.
Beautifully filmed, Pretty Baby recounts the life of Violet (Shields) who, raised in a visually stunning Storyville bordello, has no concept of how the rest of the world functions. The photographer Ernest J. Bellocq (Keith Carradine) becomes fascinated with the young girl, and begins photographing her. When Violet's mother leaves with a new husband, the girl begins to see Bellocq as a possible path to a new life. Carradine portrays the enigmatic photographer as a gentle outsider who chooses not to abuse the girl's attentions. The real-life Bellocq was deformed and (possibly) impotent.
Violet's implied sex scenes take place well off-camera, and her nudity (filmed with Shield's mother on-site) does serve a purpose. In the film's earliest sequences, Violet appears made up as a miniature adult, delivering the brothel's messages and preparing the Madame's opium pipe. When she first appears nude, she is taking a bath; she stands up for a potential client to see her. That moment rather dramatically illustrates that, although she has recently reached puberty, she is very much a child. The thought that her virginity will soon be auctioned to the highest bidder strikes the viewer in that instant as terribly shocking.
Of course, the reason for the nudity does not by itself negate criticism. Many people would argue that such scenes, however artistically done, remain improper. The film did not strike me as pornographic, but I have no doubt that it draws pedophiles along with its broader audience.
Pretty Baby, with its ambivalent treatment of the brothel life and uncertain ending, is far from perfect. Its strengths lie in its ability to capture its subjects' inherent uncertainties, including Violet's half-child/half-adult life. Malle also shows us how normal the Red Light District might seem to its inhabitants, and the hypocracies of a culture which condemned those inhabitants, even while some of its most respectable men used their services. It evokes our own culture, which both criticizes and, through the mass media, revels in the sexualization of childhood and adolescence.
The film will shock many people, but what appears onscreen pales beside the vulgar reality captured in Rose's Storyville, New Orleans. And Brooke Shields, in all fairness, seems among the more adjusted former child stars Hollywood has produced.