This was unexpected. A mere coincidence or a Jungian synchronicity involving the Kore archetype?
I was in the city yesterday; visiting the NGV, browsing bookshops and as I flicked through an edition of Purple magazine featuring Chloe Sevigny I noticed that one of the shots of Chloe featured two of Garry Gross’s controversial photos of the young Brooke Shields.
The photos were taken by Terry Richardson, the bad boy of fashion photography. Richardson is intentionally provocative and both Purple and Chloe Sevigny are noted for their transgression (perhaps more on this later). I was somewhat surprised to see the images reproduced but shrugged my shoulders and walked away, thinking that it was very like Richardson. I gave it no more thought.
That is, not until I was flicking through my digital TV program guide and noticed that ABC2 was going to show Pretty Baby at 8:30 that same night. This was a genuine surprise. Given the current concern over the sexualization of children I would have thought the ABC would have judiciously chosen to avoid screening this film (it could not be made today). In any case I expected it to be heavily cut, especially considering that it had been given a M rating (the highest rating for TV is M15+).
The next surprise was to discover that it seems not to be have been cut much at all. I can’t be sure. The last time I saw the film was back when it had been released and my memory of it has since faded. I do vaguely remember that Brooke appeared in a full frontal nude scene, although I had confused it with a famous photograph of Natassja Kinski taken by Richard Avedon.
Now, if there were scenes that I expected to be cut, it was this scene and a long shot of a completely naked Brooke running from Bellocq after an act of childish spite. But they weren’t cut. There indeed, was a naked Brooke lying on the couch, with only a hand to lightly conceal her vulva, and yes, there were her bare buttocks running across the room and her bare buttocks as she stood at a door. I had read that the DVD release had been digitally reframed to avoid shots of her vulva or bare buttocks, but I saw no evidence of this. Hence my surprise.
Okay, so what of the film itself? It had been a long time since I saw it but I do remember being unimpressed back then. I was even less impressed this time. I thought Malle’s direction was less than inspired and the script clumsy. Some of the acting performances, including some of Brooke’s, were stilted. Indeed, much of it seem caricatured: the happy-go-lucky, ‘Huckleberry Finn’ delivery boy; the gentle but wise negro musician; the alcoholic madame.
The film is historically accurate. At the time the age of consent was 12 and such young prostitutes did indeed exist. But I could not understand why Malle wanted to do this film.
I think he had a genuine interest in the issue of the sexualization of children. He clearly shows the character of Violet as a child forced to be sexual before she is ready. The early scenes in the brothel show her fully exposed to the reality of prostitution. In one scene her mother (played by Susan Sarandon) is taking a client upstairs and Violet makes conversation with him. He is surprised she is there and asks out of shocked curiosity if she is also a whore. Her mother says no, she is too young and is only good for French (fellatio). Her mother then leads the man into her room where he begins to undress and Violet stands at the open door staring. He does not invite her in and acts surprised that she is allowed to watch. Her mother complains and says, ‘well, are you just going to stand there?’ We expect her to close the door and leave, instead she enters the room and closes the door behind her. We are left to guess what happens next. Does she stay and watch or does she participate in some form?
In many ways the story is romanticized and does not accurately portray the reality of brothel life. It is all a bit jolly. Ultimately I don’t think Malle actually knew how to handle the subject. It is clear he chose to cross some lines but stay on the safe side of others. We never see Brooke in a sexual situation with an adult, although we do see her flirting and even kissing adult men. I don’t think Malle actually knew how a sexual child behaves and I believe his direction of Brooke suffers from mixed messages; to act innocently when she should have acted knowingly and vice versa. At some times she is expected to deliver sexualized lines in a childish way with the result simply being unconvincing. I actually do not blame Brooke for her performance because I think she was given conflicting direction.
The big surprise is Brooke’s full and partial nudity. In the earlier parts of the film she wanders about in period knickers and slips (clearly without underwear), but when she flees to Bellocq’s house after receiving a beating at the brothel, she quickly disrobes. She seduces Bellocq and the next morning we see her lying naked in his bed after he has left for the day.
The surprise is that she declines to dress and there are several quick scenes of her wandering about the house naked, exploring. She stays with Bellocq and he eventually marries her (yes, it was legal at the time – Church cannon law at the time stated the minimum age of marriage was 12 – and she is married in a church). It is during this time we see more of the naked Brooke at exactly the same time she begins to act more like a child. In one scene Bellocq gives her her first doll (he is not a paedophile, instead he seeks to rescue her and turn her into an honest woman – throughout the film he never pays the prostitutes for sex, only to photograph them).
Clearly Malle is trying to show the contradictions inherent in the overtly sexualized child, but he is clumsy. He just does not understand what it would really be like to be in her position.
Perhaps the most telling scene is the morning after she is deflowered. She lies partially naked and dishevelled on the bed. We think she is unconscious and the other whores rush in to see if she is okay. It turns out she is only pretending. They then ask how she is and she alternately laughs and cries. When she moves she clutches at her vulva in pain but then seems to look somewhat proud that she is finally no longer a virgin.
What Malle fails to convey, although he seems to want to, is that this would be a traumatic and painful experience. I think he is trying to show that she is putting on a brave face, acting as if she has undergone an important initiation. The problem is that he glosses over the psychological impact. This does not mean that I support the view that she would be permanently psychologically scarred, because this is not accurate either. The most likely impact is that she would become emotionally detached and somewhat automatic in her sexual responses. Malle instead chooses to keep her somewhat cheerful and innocent throughout what would be a psychologically intense experience even for an adult.
But how did playing such a role affect Brooke? As I said in an earlier blog she was inspired by her experience with Malle and when she was at Princeton she wrote a thesis on Malle entitled: The Initiation: From Innocence to Experience: The Pre-Adolescent/Adolescent Journey in the Films of Louis Malle, Pretty Baby and Lacombe Lucien (if anyone knows his intent it is surely his lead actress).
And whilst the moral conservatives may be disturbed by the nudity and the subject matter, Brooke has never complained. And as I have repeatedly argued, it is the voice of the subject that is the most important in all instances and Brooke has clearly said she found the experience of Pretty Baby overwhelmingly positive. Ultimately, despite its flaws, we should look at the film as she would wish us to. The problem with the moral conservatives is their arrogant need to rescue people from imagined harm. There was no harm done here and Brooke doesn’t mind at all that we see her naked. Indeed, Brooke clearly was not prematurely sexualized by playing this role because she rather famously declared she remained a virgin until she reached 22.