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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Pretty Baby (review)

It was shocking in its day, perhaps — its day being 1978 — but today Louis Malle’s idyllic, almost documentary-style depiction of a child prostitute can’t hope to be as provocative: One need only look at prepubescent Britney Spears fans to find young girls who are far more overtly sexualized than 12-year-old Brooke Shields is here, even if today’s girls are just as naive as Shields’s coquettish Violet. Disturbing but never exploitive, Violet’s coming of age in a 1917 New Orleans bordello is plodding and almost plotless, but the strikingly lovely cinematography — the transfer to DVD is soft and clean — lends the film an air of reverie that belies the genteel harshness of Violet’s world: Her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder, her mother (a languid Susan Sarandon) abandons her, a much-older photographer (Keith Carradine) falls in love with her, and she’s still childish enough to play with dolls. Malle plays it straightforward and unsentimental, and the matter-of-fact attitude makes it all the more tragic.

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MPAA: rated R

viewed at home on a small screen

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