Borderlands (Zev Berman, 2007): 6.5/10

The Magic Flute (Ingmar Bergman, 1975): 7/10

La Guerre Est Finie (Alain Resnais, 1966): 7/10

Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008): 8/10

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Location: milwaukee, wi

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Pretty Baby (Louis Malle, 1978)

All 95% of people know about Pretty Baby is the fact that a 12-year-old Brooke Shields appeared naked in the film as a child prostitute in 1910s New Orleans. There, I've acknowledged it, though I'll come back to it, and now I can say a little bit more about the movie. Violet is the daughter of prostitute Hattie, who was the daughter of a prostitute as well. At the beginning of the film, Hattie, offscreen, is making gutteral moans that could only be from sex or childbirth. Hattie is giving birth to a baby boy, another child to be brought up in Nell's brothel, a lush, extravagant place of fabricated good times. Men come in and out, and some women, like Hattie, have regulars. The dream of all the women is to have a rich man swoop them up and take them away from this place; that's why these women deal with the occasionally violent and almost always insensitive johns.

One day, photographer Bellocq comes to the brothel to take pictures of Hattie. No one understands it, but they indulge him because he pays. The more and more time he spends at the place, the more enraptured he becomes with first Hattie, then Violet. Even though she's so young, her virginity is ultimately sold to literally the highest bidder, so she becomes a girl just like any other in the house. In this way, it's not that unusual that Bellocq falls in love with Violet, especially since she play-acts as a woman all the time. But in many other ways, it's incredibly unusual, especially when we see her naked.

Violet, played precociously by Shields, is always swinging wildly between womanhood and childhood - on one hand, she tells the other girls she knows what to do during sex and talks like a prostitute, and on the other, she throws wild tantrums and scratches out the faces on some of Bellocq's negatives. That's why it's so disconcerting to finally see her naked; it's not sexy, in any way. It's a reminder that Violet is, indeed, a child.

This film could never, in any way, be made today. Remember the vague controversy around Hounddog from last year's Sundance Festival? If I remember correctly, Dakota Fanning isn't even close to being naked in the film. Now, there are people all over the IMDB boards screaming self-righteously about how Malle and Shields' mother (against whom Shields does apparently hold this) and everyone else on the film should be thrown in jail. Thankfully, simply showing a child nude, for non-sexual reasons, isn't against the law in this country. And Malle's film simply doesn't show Violet naked for sexual reasons. It's just the opposite; it's as if Malle puts this in front of us to remind us that she's a girl, how could anyone take her otherwise?

It's not a great film, but it is beautiful and well-acted. I give it brownie points for being so brave, but it's probably not a film I would watch again. Pretty Baby represents the best in American (although Malle was French, this was an American production) filmmaking creativity, but the worst in the current political climate in this country. You can disagree with Malle and screenwriter Polly Platt's choices, but there's no crimes here. If you're interested, photos from the real E.J. Bellocq can be found here.


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