Tonight Hattie (Susan Sarandon) is giving birth to her second child, although the infant's prospects are not great seeing as how his mother is a prostitute and lives in a Storyville brothel in the New Orleans of 1917. Hattie's other child is twelve-year-old Violet (Brooke Shields), and she is excited at the news she has a baby brother, so runs around the establishment telling everyone she can about the arrival, although there are few who are interested, preferring to get on with their work. Only the piano player Professor (Antonio Fargas) humours her, but even he doesn't really connect with her, as he is more of an observer in this environment...
And the "What the hell were they thinking?" award for moviemaking goes to... Pretty Baby! At the time this came out in America, and indeed the rest of the world, there was a genuine, growing concern about child exploitation, especially of the sexually abusive kind. We're used to people being up in arms about the subject now, and rightly so, but this film was released about the only time that the production could have got away with it, this being the seventies where barriers were in the process of being broken down as to what you could depict onscreen. If you were to release a non-judgemental work about child prostitution now, it would be surprising if anyone would go to see it, or even admit to wanting to.
So it's the blandly uncritical camera of Louis Malle, working with co-writer and producer Polly Platt, which gives rise to the most troubling aspect of the film, with the brothel itself depicted not as a setting of depressing degredation, but almost an airy-fairy fantasy land where nothing so terrible happens that it cannot be laughed off later. If it were showing a brothel of the seventies it's doubtful if they would have been quite so blasé, but here their excuse appeared to be that as it was harkening back to another era, then they could rely on Sven Nykvist's photography to lend it the sepia tones of nostalgia. The distance of time in the story doesn't exactly make it any more palatable to the sensitive viewers in the audience, of course.
Those sensitive viewers being about ninety percent of the audience, one assumes, as with no especially awful consequences for the characters in relation to their actions, the film came too close to endorsing what was going on. Not that the filmmakers were encouraging paedophilia, it's just that they don't seem to have thought through how the results of their tale, which was based on actual people of the time shown, would appear. For the first half hour it's all lazy mood and not much happening, and despite young Violet running around the whorehouse little occurs that make it stand out from the average period piece. Then arrives a scene which will have most reasonable people feeling decidedly uncomfortable.
This is where Violet's virginity is auctioned off to a group of wealthy businessmen one night, all with the blessing of Hattie who as we see is hardly more mature in her outlook than her daughter is. The sight of all these dirty old men bidding for the girl is truly unsettling, and although Malle wasn't foolish enough to shoot anything explicit, it's clear what is going to happen to her and the fact that Violet shrugs off her experience right afterwards is not reassuring. It doesn't help that she is one of a host of weakly written characters who lapse too often into cliché, and Shields was not actress enough to bring any depth to her, not that there was much other than Violet's tantrums to exhibit any inspiration. Keith Carradine plays the chaste photographer who takes the girl away from all this, but he's just as much a creep as the customers, and it's the way that the film seems reluctant to recognise this, or indeed how immoral the entire story was, that means it's one of the hardest movies to recommend. Music by Gerald Wexler.