Release Date(s)1978 (November 4, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Via Vision/Imprint)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
[Editor’s Note: This is a Region Free Blu-ray import.]
Louis Malle’s first American film Pretty Baby has always been mired in controversy thanks to its frank portrayal of an adolescent girl in the highly sexualized environment of a New Orleans brothel, to say nothing of the fact that it includes nudity from a then twelve-year-old Brooke Shields. That was challenging material in 1978, let alone in the modern era where such things have become increasingly more taboo. While a greater level of sensitivity about sexual exploitation is unquestionably a net positive, that doesn’t change the fact that not all uncomfortable subject matter has been created equal.
Pretty Baby has faced accusations of being pornographic ever since it was originally released, but those accusations are definitely misguided, however well-intentioned that they may be. Aside from the obvious objection that the sexuality as presented in Pretty Baby is neither explicit nor even remotely titillating, the real issue is that these allegations fundamentally misapprehend the historical nature of pornography, which has usually centered around the male gaze. That’s generally true even of pornographic material that has been produced by women. However, despite the fact that Pretty Baby was directed by a man, the entire film is seen through the eyes of the adolescent Violet. Everything that happens is from her perspective, both literally and metaphorically, and that alters the essential nature of the images being presented.
Pretty Baby opens with Violet (Shields) staring directly toward the camera, her gaze never wavering even as that camera pushes in closer to her face. The object of her attention remains offscreen, but the sound of a moaning woman makes it seem like Violet is watching people while they’re having sex. Yet it turns out that she’s actually watching her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon) giving birth to another child. Violet is the daughter of a prostitute working in the Storyville district of New Orleans at the turn of the century, and for both of them, sexuality, motherhood, and commerce are all inextricably intertwined. Having been raised in a brothel, that’s the only world she knows. She may not be observing direct sexual activity on this occasion, but she’s seen plenty over the course of her brief life. As a result, Violet’s view of sexuality is an entirely pragmatic one. She sees no value in eroticism other than as an illusion to be maintained in order to earn a living, and Malle’s camera treats the nudity and sexuality on display in Pretty Baby with equal indifference.
Violet’s experiences in Pretty Baby were all too real for many young people in Storyville, and while the film may be a work of fiction, it’s inspired by the accounts of those who were there. Malle and screenwriter/co-producer Polly Platt drew heavily on Al Rose’s 1974 book Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District, especially its eyewitness testimony of a young prostitute whose graphic descriptions of her own experiences formed the basis for Violet—although once again, Malle treated those lurid details in an allusive fashion. Malle and Platt also incorporated the New Orleans photographer E.J. Bellocq into their story, despite the fact that Bellocq and Violet’s progenitor never actually met each other. Bellocq’s photographs of the women in the red-light district have provided an invaluable document of the era, and his presence in Pretty Baby’s narrative adds authenticity to the film’s milieu.
Yet despite the presence of marquee names like Keith Carradine as Bellocq, or even Susan Sarandon as Hattie, Pretty Baby never loses sight of the fact that it’s really Violet’s story. That’s because it never varies from centering around Violet’s adolescent female gaze. Pretty Baby closes the same way that it opens, with Violet staring directly toward the camera—or cameras, in this case, since she’s posing for a family picture that’s being taken by her new stepfather. Violet affixes her confident gaze on the camera wielded by her stepfather, as well as the one manned by Malle’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist, taking complete command of both of them. Whatever role that society forces her to play, whatever masks that she’s required to wear, Violet knows who she really is. She’ll play the part if she has to, but she won’t let it affect her. Even if she has been “victimized” by the commodification of sex in a capitalistic culture, she’ll never play the victim for anyone.
There’s nothing even remotely pornographic about that.
Cinematographer Sven Nykvist shot Pretty Baby on 35 mm film using Arriflex cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Via Vision’s 1080p version utilizes a new restoration based on a 4K scan that was provided by Paramount Pictures, but there’s no information regarding the elements that were used. Paramount’s catalogue output has been wildly variable lately, with some releases looking fairly natural, and others displaying obvious signs of digital tinkering. Fortunately, this one falls mostly into the former camp. There have been some adjustments to the grain at times, with a few shots showing signs of noise reduction, and others having some smearing, clumping, or other artifacts. Still, taken as a whole, this is a beautiful transfer, and it’s a significant upgrade over the previous DVD editions. Nykvist did use diffusion filters occasionally to give things a gauzy, period look, so the level of detail isn’t always the strongest regardless of any noise reduction that may have been applied. There’s very little damage of any kind visible, aside from an occasional speckle, and the color grade does a fine job of reproducing Nykvist’s characteristically warm-hued color cinematography. Shadow detail is sometimes wanting in the darkest scenes, but that detail may not have existed on the negative as shot. It’s not quite a perfect transfer, but this is still a lovely presentation of this misunderstood film.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono LPCM, with optional English subtitles. It’s a clean track, with clear dialogue, and no noise or other artifacts. The score from Jerry Wexler sounds robust, despite being presented in mono.
Via Vision’s Region-Free Blu-ray release of Pretty Baby is #174 in their Imprint line, and it comes with a Limited Edition slipcase featuring artwork based upon the theatrical poster. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Kat Ellinger
- The Experience of Innocence (HD – 23:02)
- La vie en gris: The Anglophone Louis Malle in Seven Films (HD – 25:04)
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled HD – 2:26)
Author and critic Kat Ellinger is arguably the perfect person to do a commentary on Pretty Baby, since she’s best able to look past the controversy that surrounded it, and defend it against the misguided charges of being pornographic. She acknowledges that controversy up front, but then takes it apart in favor of a more reasoned inquiry into the film. By reading from the account written by the real-life Violet, she’s able to show the ways that Malle made the film far less explicit than what was described. He actually treated many of the particulars from her account indirectly, showing many details in the background that are left unexplained in the film. Ellinger also addresses the issue of whether or not Brooke Shields was exploited by the production, and explains why it’s important to allow Shields to have her own agency. It’s patronizing to say that she was traumatized by the experience, when she emphatically insists that she wasn’t. Until Shields changes her tune on that score, her version of the events has to be accepted at face value. With all of that out of the way, Ellinger provides some historical context about the prostitution scene in Storyville, a few production details about the film, and an analysis of its themes. It’s a great commentary for supporters and detractors of Pretty Baby alike—those who fall into the latter camp may find themselves challenged by some of her arguments.
The Experience of Innocence is an interview with Brooke Shields that gives her the agency that she deserves. She briefly describes her background in modeling, as well as her first feature film Alice, Sweet Alice, before providing her own point of view about making Pretty Baby. She explains the different working relationships that she had with Malle, Sarandon, and Carradine, each of whom treated her quite differently. She also talks about the hostile reaction to the film, and how she needed to take back the ownership of her own experiences on the production.
La vie en gris: The Anglophone Louis Malle in Seven Films is a video essay by filmmaker Daniel Kremer that examines the trajectory of Malle’s English-language films. It’s as much confessional as inquiry, with Kremer reflecting on the intersection between his own point-of-view as an American citizen, and that of Malle’s perspective as an outsider to the country. He also addresses Malle’s sole British film, Damage, but the bulk of the essay focuses on American works such as Pretty Baby, Atlantic City, My Dinner with Andre, Alamo Bay, and Vanya on 42nd Street.
Via Vision deserves recognition for releasing Pretty Baby in any form at all, let alone with a well-crafted set of extras like they have here. Paramount Pictures has been farming out many of their catalogue titles to other distributors, including Via Vision, so it’s not surprising that they kicked the can down the road with Pretty Baby by sending it overseas only, at least for the time being. Still, it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll offer a domestic release any time soon, so Via Vision’s Region-Free version may be the only option for anyone who wants to pick up the film in HD on physical media. It’s well worth tracking down.
- Stephen Bjork