Film / Pretty Baby

Pretty Baby is a 1978 drama film. It was the American debut of French director Louis Malle and it was also the Star-Making Role of a child actress named Brooke Shields. The movie is best known for its controversial content and subject matter.

New Orleans, 1917. In the Red Light District of Storyville, twelve-year-old Violet (Brooke Shields) is the Daughter of a Whore. Said whore is her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon) and they live in a luxurious brothel run by Madam Nell (Frances Faye). One day, photographer E. J. Bellocq (Keith Carradine) shows up at the brothel. Violet is fascinated by this man who pays to spend time with the prostitutes, but only to take pictures of them.

Madam Nell decides it's time to have Violet's virginity auctioned off. (Because twelve is old enough, right?) Meanwhile, Hattie escapes her life of prostitution by marrying a client and moving to St. Louis. There's just one little catch: she might have happened to claim that Violet was her sister rather than her daughter. She'll be coming back for Violet after she breaks the news to her new husband, but for now Violet will remain in the whorehouse. Bellocq is outraged by this arrangement, but Violet is now one of the whores so far as Madam Nell is concerned. Violet starts to act more like a Fille Fatale. She gets in trouble after flirting with a black boy because, you know, that's where they draw the line.

After getting beaten for this transgression, Violet runs away from the brothel to live with Bellocq, convincing him to let her stay by seducing him. Bellocq is seemingly unsure whether to treat her as a child or as a live-in mistress, so he treats her as both, much to Violet's confusion. It's at this point in the movie that twelve-year-old Brooke Shields prances around in the nude (actually in a flesh-colored G-string, but she's meant to be fully nude) for a couple of controversial scenes which almost certainly could not be filmed today. Bellocq tries using Violet as a photography model, but the restless child doesn't have a long enough attention span for it. They have a fight, which ends with Bellocq kicking her out.

Violet returns to the brothel, only to find that Storyville is now being shut down by the Moral Guardians. The whores are all going their separate ways. Bellocq offers to marry Violet and she agrees. After they've been married for awhile, Hattie finally returns and takes Violet away to be raised as a normal child for the first time in her life.


  • Children Of Whores: Violet, as well as her playmates in the brothel. She also has a baby brother, who is so important that his name is never mentioned. Hattie mentions that she started off as this trope:
    Hattie: My mama was a whore. She had me in a house just like this. Now I'm a whore.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Hoo, boy.
  • The Edwardian Era: Set in 1917. Technically, that's during World War I, but the war is only mentioned in passing whereas Edwardian dresses and ragtime music abound.
  • End of an Age: The end of New Orleans's Storyville district
  • Fille Fatale: Violet, especially after she experiences sex.
  • Hypocrite: The brothel is picketed by a bunch of sailors. However, the supply only exists because of the demand. They should be protesting their fellow sailors instead.
  • Nature Adores a Virgin: When Violet's virginity is auctioned off, Madam Nell makes sure to extol her purity. Having been raised in a whorehouse, Violet is actually pretty knowledgeable about sex in spite of having not done it yet. She's told to exaggerate her innocence because "this guy is buying a virgin".
  • Old Man Marrying a Child: Downplayed, in that Bellocq is in his twenties, but he marries Violet. It's also a rare heartwarming example.
  • Platonic Prostitution: Bellocq visits prostitutes in order to photograph them.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Subverted regarding statutory rape. Violet is seen by some as too young to be a whore even at the time (and would undoubtedly inspire a Pædo Hunt in the modern day), though she herself sees nothing wrong with it, and thus experiences no negative consequences from having sex with much older men as a child.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Violet's deflowering marks her transition from "daughter of a whore" to "whore".
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Violet is very sexually bold, as you might expect of a child raised in a whorehouse, and is also shown drinking alcohol a couple times, though Louisiana did not have a minimum drinking age at the time.