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Film / Pretty Baby

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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 for then-child actress 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.

As you can gather from the synopsis, the film was highly controversial when it was released. Brooke Shields was twelve years old playing a child prostitute, and appeared nude on camera. Much like the novel Lolita it gained a significant reputation as an endorsement of child pornography - but is in fact an accurate representation of the times.


  • Absurdly Youthful Mother: Given that there's only a nineteen year age difference between Brooke Shields and the 31-year-old Susan Sarandon (though it's likely Hattie is meant to be a few years younger) this is probably implying that Hattie was a young mother herself. Hattie exploits this to try and pretend Violet is her younger sister.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Violet reunites with her mother, who's cashed in her Meal Ticket for a life of luxury. Bellocq reluctantly accedes to the demand that he separate from his child bride, allowing her a chance at the normal life denied to her at birth. But it's left ambiguous as to whether her upbringing will allow her to grasp it — the final shot trails on Violet, uncomfortably stuffed into a prim and proper dress, as she stares down her stepfather's camera looking lost and uncertain.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Nell the madam of the brothel wears a different colour each night, thanks to her wigs.
  • Children Are Innocent: Zig-zagged with Violet. She's Wise Beyond Her Years when it comes to sex — as she's been raised around it — but this frequently clashes with her childlike idealism and innocence.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Hoo, boy.
    • Violet's virginity gets sold and she starts working as a whore in the brothel at only the age of twelve. She also marries Bellocq briefly. No one finds this unusual or uncommon.
    • Hattie marries a customer, pretending Violet is her younger sister rather than her daughter, but plans to break the news after she's settled in. By the time she returns to claim Violet, the husband apparently has no problems with this arrangement.
    • Violet's nasty behaviour that she gets punished for? Flirting with a black boy.
    • Despite being presented as a sympathetic character, Bellocq still slaps Violet for misbehaving, which would be seen as appropriate discipline of the era. He also has sex with her and marries her, a literal child.
  • 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.
  • Everyone Has Standards: One of the brothel's patrons openly derides the bidding war because he's discomfited by the notion of sex with a child. Antonio Fargas' character also looks tense throughout this scene.
  • Fille Fatale: Violet has grown up in the brothel and around the whores, so she acts like this. After she experiences sex, she becomes a lot more flirtatious.
  • Historical Domain Character: Ernest J Bellocq, who later became known for his haunting photographs of the prostitutes of New Orleans.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Hattie is a more complicated example of this trope. She is portrayed sympathetically, and wants out of her life as a prostitute. Although she abandons her children to do so she comes back to reclaim Violet and take her away to a better life.
  • Hookers and Blow: Alluded to. Hattie chews out another whore for her cocaine addiction. Nell is shown sniffing some earlier in the film too.
  • 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.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Hattie wants to be respectable and runs away to get married. She appears to have succeeded by the end.
  • Informed Deformity: Violet jokes that she has a big stomach "like all my fathers", but she's a slender little girl.
  • Last Guy Wins: Hattie has a client she's somewhat romantic with, some flirting with Bellocq and another customer who she eventually marries.
  • Love Triangle: Violet is slightly jealous of the attraction Bellocq has to her mother.
  • Miss Kitty: Nell, who is the madame of the brothel.
  • Mood Whiplash: Hattie's drunken lover attacks her for 'stealing' a pair of earrings, forgetting that he gave them to her. Hattie starts fighting back, and the two eventually start giggling at the situation. Violet is seen laughing too, suggesting that this behavior is normal for them.
  • 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".
  • Not Distracted by the Sexy: Bellocq doesn't partake in any of the whores while he's there. While he has Hattie semi-naked he only cares about the lighting for the photo. Averted when he decides to have sex with 12 year old Violet.
  • Old Man Marrying a Child: Bellocq is in his twenties, but he marries Violet.
  • Parental Abandonment: Hattie abandons Violet to get married, though Violet is the one who tells her to do so — as she doesn't want to leave the brothel.
  • Platonic Prostitution: Bellocq visits prostitutes in order to photograph them.
  • Precocious Crush: Violet is 12 and crushes on Bellocq. Uniquely for this trope, they marry for a time.
  • Pretty in Mink: Hattie reappears with her new husband and respectable lifestyle wearing a fancy fur scarf.
  • Red Light District: Storyville, where the film takes place, is the red light district of New Orleans.
  • Romantic False Lead: Hattie has a regular client she has a rocky relationship with. Unfortunately he's too drunk one night and Nell has him hit with a hammer, and it's implied he's left to die.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The end of legal prostitution in Storyville coincides with the end of Violet's disturbed childhood. She ends the film ironically with the chance to be a normal girl.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Hattie wants to leave the brothel after the whores kill one of her customers for his drunkenness. But when Violet refuses to go, she has to stay. She later marries so she can escape for real.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Violet's deflowering marks her transition from "daughter of a whore" to "whore".
  • Slice of Life: No real plot. It's mainly a look into the life of a twelve-year-old girl who grew up in a brothel.
  • Son of a Whore: 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.
  • Stepford Smiler: After losing her virginity, Violet tries to laugh with the other girls. But for a moment she slips up and it's clear she's in horrible pain.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: The melding of Violet's precocious aptitude for sexual behaviour and her childish immaturity frustrates Bellocq, who wants his twelve-year-old lover to act classier than a whore (which she was raised to be) and more mature than a child (which she is).
  • Titled After the Song: "Pretty Baby" is, in fact, a popular ragtime song from the 1910s era in which the film takes place.
  • 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.
  • Uncanny Valley Makeup: Violet is made up excessively for the scene where her virginity is sold.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Violet has no interest in the whores taking the body of a man they killed out of the house. While they do so, she sits and plays.
  • Where da White Women At?: Violet is punished for flirting with a black man.
  • Why Did You Make Me Hit You?: Hattie slaps Violet when she refuses to leave the brothel, and she thinks it means she won't get to lead the respectable life she wants.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Bellocq slaps Violet when she messes with his camera. He also has sex with her, which most would consider far worse harm than a slap.