Pretty Baby (1978) B
After directing a series of acclaimed and controversial films in his native France, director Louis Malle made his American debut with “Pretty Baby,” in 1978, co-starring Susan Sarandon (with whom he had a relationship off screen) and Brooke Shileds.
In this emotionally disturbing but visually beautiful period story, Sarandon plays Hattie, a prostitute working in New Orleans’ Storyville district at the turn of the century. When Hattie becomes pregnant, she opts to keep her baby and gives birth to a daughter named Violet, raising her in the brothel where she continues to work.
Cut to 12 years later, when Violet (Brooke Shields) is old enough to attract the attentions of the brothel’s customers. As a teenager, she has one foot in the adult world and the other in the naïveté of childhood.
With Hattie’s approval, Violet’s virginity is auctioned off to the customers of the house. But for Violet, the pull between childhood and adulthood becomes really painful, when she draws the affections of Bellocq (Keith Carradine), a photographer who has been working on a photo series about Storyville prostitutes.
Like Lolita’s, Violet’s blend of childlike innocence and adult sensuality is attractive to him, but their relationship quickly becomes problematic, especially when Hattie leaves Violet behind to get married.
To Malle’s credit, he shies away from a cheap and sleazy melodrama, as it could have been in the hands of another director.
The attention‑grabbing story of a 12‑year‑old whore, atmospheric beautifully photographed film, made a star of a pubescent Brooke Shields. It is still banned inCanada.
Malle’s next collaboration with Sarandon would result in a much better and poignant film, the Oscar-nominated “Atlantic City,” in 1981.
Oscar Nominations: 1
Original Score: Jerry Wexler
Oscar Awards: None
The Oscar winner was Joe Renzetti for “The Buddy Holy Story.”
About Louis Malle
Born in 1932, Louis Malle began his career with Jacques‑Yves Cousteau, working on the celebrated underwater documentary Le Monde de Silence/The Silent World (1956). Malle also directed two shorts and served as Robert Bresson’s assistant on Un Condamne a Mort s’est echappe/A Man Escaped (1956) before turning out his first solo feature as a director, Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud/ Elevator to the Gallows (made in 1957) a stylish
psychological thriller noted for Henri Dacae’s darkly atmospheric photography ofParis. The film, which showcased the talent of Jeanne Moreau, enjoyed considerable success and earned for Malle the coveted Prix Delluc.
Malle’s next film, Les Amants/The Lovers (1958), caused much controversy because of its overly explicit sexuality. It became a big commercial hit, internationally establishing the reputations of both its director and star, again Jeanne Moreau. The lyrical love scenes and fluid tracking shots that distinguished this film at the time of its first showing remain more memorable than its intended comment on the vacuity of the French bourgeoisie.
The film won the Special Jury Prize atVenice. Following a change‑of‑pace production, the frivolous and baffling Zazie dans le Metro/Zazie (1960), Malle turned out Vie privee/A Very Private Affair (1962), a study of the rise of a film star, starring Brigitte Bardot in a fictionalized biography.
Demonstrating his versatility and the broad range of his concerns and style, Malle next made Le Feu Follet/The Fire Within (1963), a somber, keenly observed, sensitively told story of the last few days in the life of a suicidal alcoholic. Again Malle won the Special Jury Prize atVenice, this time in a tie.
Shifting gears once more, Malle then gave us Viva Maria (1965), a fun‑filled, visually spectacular bit of nonsense co‑starring the two great leading ladies of the French cinema. Bardot and Moreau. Next came Le Voleur/The Thief of Paris (1967), a well‑executed period crime drama that lovingly recreated turn‑of‑the‑centuryParis.
Malle then embarked on a six‑month voyage to India, which resulted in a feature‑length documentary, Calcutta (1969), and a seven‑part TV series, L’Inde fantome/Phantom India, broadcast internationally to great acclaim and later also shown in movie theaters. The Indian government protested to no avail against what it considered Malle’s excessive interest in the more‑appalling aspects of life inIndia, like poverty and overcrowding. Malle returned to the fictional film with Le Soufflé au Coeur/Murmur of the Heart (1971), a tenderly and discreetly treated story of adolescence, and Lacombe Lucien (1973), a prix‑Melies‑winning character study against the background of the Nazi Occupation. Both films generated their impact from their moving simplicity. Not so Black Moon (1975), an eccentric, self‑indulgent film inspired by Lewis Carroll’sAlicein Wonderland.
In 1978, Malle released his first American‑made film, the controversial, attention‑grabbing story of a 12‑year‑old whore, Pretty Baby. The atmospheric, beautifully photographed film made a star of a pubescent Brooke Shields. It is still banned inCanada.
Malle continued his North American ventures with the Canadian‑French‑sponsored Atlantic City (1980), a moving, minutely‑observed character study boasting a superb performance by Burt Lancaster. The film won several international prizes, including the British Film Academy Award. The director next elicited two delightful performances from two real characters in My Dinner With Andre (1981), a remarkably intelligent little film consisting entirely of a dinner conversation between avant‑garde theater director Andre Gregory and actor‑playwright Wallace Shawn. Malle closed his American chapter with two disappointing films.
His career seemed to be in an irreversible eclipse when he came back triumphantly in 1987 with Au Revoir les Enfants, a deeply‑felt childhood memoir of his traumatic experience at a Catholic boarding school that harbored Jewish children during the Nazi occupation ofFrance. Malle’s several international prizes for the film included the Golden Lion atVenice, three Cesars (Best Film, Director, and Screenplay), the British Film Academy Award for Best Director, and the European Film Award for Best Screenplay. His intensely erotic, controlled 1992 film Damage offered strong performances from lead Jeremy Irons and Miranda Richardson, but drew only mixed reviews. He has been married since 1980 to actress Candice Bergen.
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