The opening scene of Louis Malle's Pretty Baby introduces us to the main location of the film and the principle characters through the eyes of Violet, a prepubescent (and how!) girl growing up in fairly unconventional circumstances. We are introduced to Violet, played with an appropriately strange mix of coltish naivete and attempted prescient worldliness by Brooke Shields, as she stares with wide open eyes and listens to a woman's grunts – whether the cries are of ecstasy or pain (we learn a moment later that they are the latter, as Hattie, Violet's mother is in labor) we do not know, but the odd vision of a young girl with a faint smear of makeup on her face listening to something very intimate immediately tips us off that something is not quite right in this house. Or at least not right to we viewers, because the goings-on at Madame Nell's whorehouse are perfectly normal to Violet and she herself is inducted into the wonderful world of whoredom mid-film at the tender age of 12.
She inducts us into it, as well, beginning with this all-important first scene: the baby (christened "pretty baby" by Professor as he plays a song, although it is clear that the title refers not to Will (and did anybody else smell shaken baby syndrome/Louise Woodward when we flashed forward about a year in the next scene?)) born, Violet rushes out of the room to tell the rest of the house the joyous (or is it?) news. She runs downstairs, barefoot and wearing a nightgown and lipstick, and bursts into a world of warmth and decoration from the bare attic, rocking our prior sensory perceptions of the house. She opens a door and witnesses two people having sex, but doesn't appear surprised in the least – what kind of house is this, anyway?, we are thinking. Violet turns and runs down yet another flight of stairs to the main floor of the house, which is tinkling with the sounds of the piano and the hum of conversation. Scantily clad women mill about the room, each engaged in deep conversation with a well-dressed man. Violet approaches each woman individually and informs them, "It's a boy!" Nobody makes a move to go to Hattie, though; business comes first. This is the credo by which everybody in the house, save Violet, lives – Violet's mother even scolds her for waking her up when she is with a client.
And so begins Pretty Baby. The rest of the film is a romp of harlotry through the eyes of a girl surrounded by women and therefore rushed headlong into adulthood long before her mind or body are ready. Violet is abandoned by a selfish mother who views her as a ball and chain around her ankle and goes off to marry a respectable man, leaving Violet to Madame Nell. Violet is involved in a relationship with Bellocq, a man whom she calls "Papa," that owes much to Nabakov. Violet's virginity is auctioned off as if she were a slave on the blocks on the wharf; later she is whipped for disorderly conduct unbecoming of a whore. And through all of this, we are never really sure where the film puts the line between right and wrong, or if it has one at all. Violet enjoys her life at the house, her newfound "adulthood" (quotations necessary, you understand, as she is clearly no more than a child), the love-hate/father-lover emotions that Bellocq feels for her.
Malle's camera never shies away from Violet at any moment, including nude scenes. If Malle does not flinch at anything in Pretty Baby, should we? We have seen Violet grow up in a household where moral fiber is found only in salad, and Malle acts like Bellocq, alternately disgusted by what he sees and enraptured by it. But in the end, Violet goes the conventional route, joining her mother and brother in "normal" society and spurning Bellocq, who "cannot live without her." Malle appears to embrace normalcy at the film's conclusion, but the last shot of Violet undermines this effect: she is again wearing that smidgen of lipstick, dressed respectably but still bringing to mind all that we have seen her experience. This is a girl with a past, and no matter how innocently immature she was during her actions, that past is not easily forgotten by us or the camera. The credits roll over a freeze-frame of the "new" Violet, and we are left wondering how she will react to the new life ahead of her. I'd like to think that she will gain a bit of sense and stability; but whether sense and stability lies in the new home or the old whorehouse is anyone's guess.
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