A brief look at Louis Malle’s ‘Pretty Baby’ (1978)

Pretty Baby is a period-piece set in the city of New Orleans, 1917. The primary setting is within a brothel of which we are introduced and later familiarized with all of the prostitutes, the manager and the servants. However, one of the prostitutes (Susan Sarandon) has a 12 year old daughter, Violet (Brooke Shields), whose innocence only attracts attention from any and all men. She is a curious little one and perhaps even a bit too mature for her age. She later gets auctioned off to the highest bidder after a somewhat “royal” celebration, for a woman’s purity can only be stolen once in her life. She later escapes the whorehouse after her mom marries and practically abandons her for a wealthy man of high class. Violet decides to marry the quiet and soft-spoken photographer, who takes pictures of all the ladies, whom she has grown quite fond of.

As you can see, this picture will hit quite a few cords with people not comfortable with the subject matter. Louis Malle, however, realizes this early on. He is making a sensitive film of an adolescent sprung forwards to adult life with or without her consent. She is born into the life, true, but she ultimately makes the decisions herself on prostitution and married life. We tend to forget that this character is merely 12 years old. She speaks like an adult and acts like an adult. It is only in certain scenes that we are shaken back into reality when she throws her immature temper tantrums. Several issues are brought forth in this picture. One wonders on the concept of childhood. What makes a child young? What makes an adult old? Is it experience, wisdom, or lack of those traits? What defines a person’s status? Are these just imaginary lines set forth by past generations? As I see it, Pretty Baby begins to suggest society’s misconception of children and adults, for most people only look at one’s years when considering their character, rather than their personality. The film builds itself up to suggest the crossing of this barrier. The defiance in which a child takes up an adult’s life. However, by the end of the work, we are left with what we came in with.

We are left to conclude that a child is still a child regardless of how beautiful or how grown up she may choose to appear. By the end of the film, the society in which she is forced to be an adult finally caves in. Her marriage is no longer existent and her prior family realizes her need for civility and maturity. It ends in a bitter sweet note. Do not count this film as a type of child pornography. Though it does have nudity, the subject of the film is not the film itself. Pretty Baby is a mere testament to the era of New Orleans in which prostitution was a common practice. It is not supporting, nor exploiting the matter, but rather observing it.

Thank you for reading,

Omar Antonio Iturriaga