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Pretty Baby

Louis Malle's "kiddie porn" film was considered shocking and infamous upon its 1978 theatrical release, but Pretty Baby has since settled into a place of historical significance, primarily as the movie that introduced a 12-year-old model named Brooke Shields to filmgoers. The stunningly beautiful film by Malle, created hand-in-hand with cinematographer Sven Nyqvist, is set in 1917 New Orleans, in a Storyville brothel called Nell's. Violet (Shields) is a "trick baby" — the daughter of one of Nell's prostitutes, Hattie (Susan Sarandon), raised in the bordello and destined to follow her mother's footsteps. Seen through the jaded eyes of Violet, the movie isn't the pornographic story of child prostitution as described by its hysterical detractors, but a lyrical, autumnal picture about the last days of Storyville, a notorious red-light district that was doomed to be shut down by the authorities who bowed to religious pressure. The story focuses on Violet's relationship with a disabled photographer named E.J. Bellocq (whose "Storyville Portraits" contributed greatly to this project's art direction). Having been left behind by her mother at the brothel, her virginity auctioned off for $400, Violet finds herself falling in love with the ambivalent Bellocq (played with laconic warmth by Keith Carradine). Malle's dispassionate take on all of this outraged audiences a quarter-century ago, but it all seems rather tame today. Perhaps too tame — Malle's restraint is so great at times that one wishes he'd pushed the envelope even more. But he got an amazing performance out of Shields, one that she never topped in her career as an actress — Violet is a mesmerizing combination of innocent child and sly young woman, and that we never see her as a victim is to both her credit and Malle's. Some of the other acting in the film is less impressive, especially Frances Faye as the brothel's elderly owner, Nell — she's simply horrible, turning in one of the worst performances seen outside of early John Waters' movies. Still, it's a beautiful movie. Its slow pace may frustrate modern viewers, but Pretty Baby is a gorgeous, emotionally stunning experience. Paramount's DVD release offers a very good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a source-print with minimal specks and scratches. The monaural Dolby Digital audio (in English or French, with optional English subtitles) is unexceptional but serviceable. No extras, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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