Before Brooke Shields cemented herself as a superstar through modeling and her breakout roles in The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love, she sent shockwaves through Hollywood by starring in Louis Malle’s 1978 period drama Pretty Baby. The film was criticized for its depiction of child prostitution, although 40 years later it reads more like a rather rudderless depiction of a young woman taking control of her own identity. Despite that, it’s still a lush and stately drama that has a world fully colored in by handsome cinematography and terrific performances. Imprint presents the film on Blu-ray with a terrific new presentation sourced from a new 4K scan and a few newly produced special features that makes this release Worth A Look.
At the core of Pretty Baby is a provocation that sent people into a furor upon its original release. Child prostitution is probably one of the touchiest topics for any filmmaker to tackle, not only because of how difficult it is to portray without being problematic, but also because it’s hard to represent without nullifying what the child is genuinely feeling. Filmmaker Louis Malle delivers the provocation with a deft hand as if it’s an act that blends easily into the well-detailed period setting and mood the film achieves. Underneath that is a thin script that falls into a rather narrow dramatization of a child’s growth into her own identity, but it’s still bolstered by terrific performances and cinematography by none other than Ingmar Bergman’s usual DP, Sven Nykvist.
The story itself is rather simple. Pretty Baby concerns itself with the last few months of legal prostitution in the red-light district on New Orleans in 1917. The cocaine-snorting Madame Nell (Frances Faye) auctions off 12-year-old Violet’s (Brooke Shields) virginity to the highest bidder. Violet’s mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon), also a prostitute, takes off for a new life without Violet. The child goes after photographer Ernest J. Bellocq (Keith Carradine), a man who frequently visited the brothel and developed an admiration for Violet, and the duo enters into a romantic relationship that mirrors the relationship between parent and child.
Louis Malle offers precisely the delicate touch and commitment to atmosphere that elevates the material above the easy-to-define exploitation that so many viewers expected from the film. Brooke Shields describes her favorite part of the production as being a story of a young child gaining autonomy and identity, and by the end of the film that much becomes true. But the journey to getting there is filled with dramatic missives that end up being more histrionic than planned. Malle’s talent comes through in the depiction of a fractured family growing even more fractured by the impending abolishment of prostitution. Screen legends like Barbara Steele and Seret Scott help to color in a fully realized world of innocence yet to be sullied.
What sticks out most about the film is Sven Nykvist’s cinematography. The man could shoot his way through a set and make it look like the most detailed world you’ve ever seen, and that’s carried directly into Pretty Baby. Even when the characterizations grow thin or events fall in way too easy, the lush use of widescreen keeps you firmly planted in the experience.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-rays
The story of Pretty Baby is told here with a one-disc (BD50) Blu-ray release that comes housed in a clear standard case, with a limited-edition slipcover with original poster artwork over it. The Blu-ray disc boots up to a standard menu screen with options to play the film, select scenes or browse special features.
Reportedly sourced from a new 4K scan by Paramount Pictures, Pretty Baby is showcased in 1080p with an AVC MPEG-4 encode and on the whole, this presentation is a stunning upgrade that easily surpasses all previous DVD releases of the film. Contrast wows immediately with those lush sets and exteriors in Louisiana looking much clearer than previous presentations, all the while maintaining the somewhat-hazy look that Malle and Nykvist captured using natural light sources. Grain is nicely resolved and can look a bit clumpy in stills, but in motion any concerns are put to rest. I will say that for a new transfer that there’s some damage to be found here and imagine that could be removed with a proper restoration. That being said, I’m very happy with this transfer and imagine anyone viewing this for the first (or third) time will be pleased.
Similar to the video presentation, Pretty Baby sounds great with a clean LPCM 2.0 mono track that prioritizes dialogue just right and offers Jerry Wexler’s lush, elegiac score with some nice balance. Some of the dialogue gets a bit lost under competing effects, although that only happens a few times throughout. This is a rather soft and subtle film, and that’s carried through in the track here.
Imprint Films supplies this limited-edition Blu-ray release of Pretty Baby with a few new special features that explore the controversy surrounding the film. In particular, there’s a terrific interview with Brooke Shields, who breathlessly recounts her experiences in making the film and how she almost quit acting after the reaction from Cannes was so negative. In addition, there’s a great video essay by film historian Daniel Kremer that goes over Louis Malle’s career and how he constantly played the role of observer when making films in the US.
Although Pretty Baby isn’t as successful in detailing the up-and-coming of a child prostitute in 1917-era New Orleans, it succeeds on the power of its performances, cinematography and production design. And thanks to Imprint, we now have a Blu-ray release that looks and sounds great, plus has a few great special features you’ll want to dig into. This release is Worth A Look!