Friday, 30 October 2009

Pretty Baby, Louis Malle, USA 1978

Today, 30th October, happens to be Louis Malle's birthday (he would have been 77), so seeing as I did, his film Pretty Baby last night for the first time, I use Malle's birthday as an excuse to say a few things about this, his first American film.

Set in 1917 in New Orleans, Pretty Baby is, basically, a portrait of one of several whorehouses which were part and parcel of that city's Storyville neighbourhood. Although there's not much of a story to speak of, Pretty Baby homes in on Violet, a precocious child in her early teens who is one of the brothel's permanent residents, along with her mother who, needless to say, is one of the brothel's star attractions. Even at her tender age, Violet is exposed to all the usual goings-on in the brothel. And this is obviously what fascinated Malle about Polly Platt's story on which the film is based: how matters of sex, nudity, seduction, virginity, etc. are stripped of all their illicit - verboten - aura when they are 'naturally' integrated into process of growing up without fussing over them. Brooke Shields, in fact, plays Violet with such astonishing freshness ans sassiness, making it hard for the viewer to even feel sorry for her for growing up in such conditions. The questions of whether it is right or not to expose Violet - any child - to this kind of life hovers over the film constantly like a big question mark. But Malle, of course, never makes any judgment or even statement. What stunned me, though,is how the film even got made in the first place, and I can only assume that it was due to the spirit of the freewheeling 1970s that Malle managed to find backers for so risque a subject.

Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby

Another thing that struck me when watching Pretty Baby, was the European angle, of how a European film maker, in this case Malle, sees America. I've often thought - for instance when watching Hitchcock's American films - that there was something particularly European in the way he portrayed, say, San Francisco in Vertigo (USA 1958) or Pheonix in Psycho (USA 1960). And I think the same applies to many European film makers working in America (although somehow, I don't think it works the other way round, too, or does it?), including Wenders in Paris, Texas (France/ Germany 1985), and of course, Malle. I'm not sure an American film maker would have found the same visual language for Pretty Baby or Malle's subsequent film, Atlantic City (USA 1981) - or even picked Atlantic City as a location or topic. This is not intended as a judgment regarding a film's quality, I'm merely suggesting that a European film maker may have a different point of view, and may see different things - or may be intrigued by different things - in an American story or location, than his American counterpart.

Louis Malle on the set of Pretty Baby