Sunday 1 March 2009

Pretty Baby (1978)

There came a point in time where I realised that many of the best films in the world are French. There are there in my top ten: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Beauty and the Beast and Amelie; and plenty more acknowledged classics that often ring truer as such when watching them than many of their American equivalents. Put simply, they stun me more often: Pépé le Moko, Grand Illusion, J'Accuse, Rififi, Mr Hulot's Holiday, Les Diaboliques... the list goes all the way back to George Melies and his Trip to the Moon. So when I realised this I started paying more attention to the names that kept cropping up whenever I read about French cinema.

One of those names was Louis Malle, who I've now seen more work by than any other French director. He's not the greatest French name in the book but he's a fascinating director because his output is so utterly varied, both in content and consistency, as well as in location and language. The earliest of his films that I've seen was a wonderful film noir called Elevator to the Gallows, made in 1957, and later classics include Lacombe Lucien in 1974 and 1987's Au Revoir, Les Enfants. Based on the 13 of his films I've caught thus far, which comprise 40% of his directorial output, that suggests a great classic every decade or so, interspersed with excellent movies like Murmur of the Heart or Atlantic City and much lesser work like Place de la république, Black Moon or Crackers.

Pretty Baby is a notable Louis Malle film for a few reasons. It was the first of his various American films, shot in America with American actors, and which paved the way for Atlantic City, My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street. It's also one of his various controversial films, given that it's set in a New Orleans brothel in 1917 and the central character is played by twelve year old Brooke Shields. Malle was hardly a stranger to controversy, having had his 1958 film, The Lovers, banned in parts of the US for obscenity, and Murmur of the Heart touched on child nudity and incest.

We're in Storyville, New Orleans in 1917 in the whorehouse of Madame Nell. What's very quickly apparent is that this is an honest film that has no bones about showing life precisely as it was like in this place in this time. We get to see plenty but somehow it doesn't play off as excessive or exploitational, merely realistic and apparently it is indeed based on fact, however much it's a conglomeration of stories or hints at stories wrapped together rather than just one true story. It would be a really good starting point for an investigation into the history of one of the most important cities in the States.

We meet a collection of characters and weave intriguingly in and out between them. Madame Nell runs the place: she's an aging lady who has presumably seen and done it all. Now she dresses up to the nines, begins the day with absinthe and progresses through it with opium and cocaine. Most of the time she's like a painted statue but she's definitely someone who would be fascinating to talk to but dangerous to cross. Hattie is a long established prostitute in her establishment, born into the industry and passing it on to the next generation. She keeps talking about leaving and eventually manages it, though it takes the longest time because she tends to hinge her departure on her clients, who tend to be gamblers and drunkards. Mostly the whores here don't have a bad time of it and are hardly trapped in their professions.

Hattie's daughter Violet is the closest thing beyond Storyville itself to being the focus of the story because she's the one that changes through it. She was born in the whorehouse and doesn't even know how old she is. She's certainly underage, though when she's paraded round the table for her cherry to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, Madame Nell is conscious of the law and points out that she's 'just old enough'. She brings $400 which was a heck of a lot of money in 1917 and is a huge comment on life in that era too, especially as the first thing the winner does is to give her a glass of whiskey.

The pianist who plays at the whorehouse is one of the most elegant people in the story, but because he's black is spoken down to, even by the whores. The blacks in 1917 Louisiana are generally cooks and maids and musicians and the only one that commands any actual respect is the voodoo woman. Storyville is where jazz came from and the Professor plays a bunch of standards that I know from artists spanning many decades. Of course if every angle that could come out of this film was fully explored, Pretty Baby would be a week long.

The closest character to a real one is Ernest Bellocq, a photographer who practically moves into the brothel but doesn't share a bed with any of the professional ladies. He's more interested in taking pictures of them, and in fact the entire film is built around the photographs taken by the real Bellocq. He's mostly known for his professional work for local companies but took many pictures of the hidden life of the Big Easy, not just the prostitutes of Storyville but also the opium dens of Chinatown. These were far less well known at the time as they were less widely circulated but were discovered later and have become his true legacy as an artist. This isn't the only thing based on his work.

The story is fascinating but mostly because of how alien it is to us today. This is set less than a hundred years ago but it could easily have been two or three hundred given how far from our own morals these morals are. This is most obvious in our reactions to what we see: watching in 2009, it's shocking to see a twelve year old prostitute shown naked on screen, while in 1917 her virginity was auctioned off to a room of notables, including at least one senator. Of course by the end of the film Madame Nell's brothel is closed down by hymn singing moral crusaders. As much as most of the film is so lost in time, I guess some things never change.

The film is shot beautifully, as would befit a film based on a set of photographs, but not just in the scenes that specifically reenact them. Malle's films are often well shot, because he began as a cameraman, working for Robert Bresson and even Jacques Cousteau, who described him as the best underwater cameraman he ever had. This one could well be the best though, aided as it is by some great sets and even better costumes. Really though, the film relies on one thing above all else: the performance of Brooke Shields, who was justly launched into stardom on the basis of this film. She does an amazing job, effectively giving us both sides of her character: the child and the adult.

The rest of the cast is generally notable too, though they're all walking in the shadow of their twelve year old co-star. Keith Carradine gets top credit as Bellocq, but to my eyes is the weakest link. Susan Sarandon, early in her career, is excellent as Violet's mother Hattie, which prompted a lead role in Malle's next American film, Atlantic City. Frances Faye is highly memorable as Madame Nell. Antonio Fargas is subtly awesome as the Professor, the whorehouse's pianist. He doesn't to say much, being an uppity nigger and all even to the whores, but beyond social convention of the time he's the most elegant person in the place and he says plenty with his eyes that he can't say with his mouth.

All in all, it's a powerful film, definitely up there in the higher end of Malle's output, though perhaps Carradine's performance helps drop it below the best of them.

1 comment:

Twinlet said...

Nicely written dearheart.