It’s 1917 in New Orleans, Louisiana, and young Violent (Brooke Shields) has been raised in a brothel where her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon) lives. There, she lives like a young girl in a happy family, and one night even joins the ranks as her virginity is sold to the highest bidder. But her life changes when photographer Ernest J. Bellocq (Keith Carradine) comes in, taking artistic pictures of the prostitutes. He immediately falls for the young child’s innocence, youth, and photogenic looks. After Hattie abandons Violet to marry a rich man, Violent and Ernest marry, but their relationship will be short-lived.
Based on the photographs taken by photographer Ernest J. Bellocq during his stay in Storyville, the legal prostitute red-light district of New Orleans, this is one of the most realistically romantic films I’ve ever seen. My main interest in watching the film came when I found out it was Louis Malle who had directed it, him being one of my favorite directors with films like Elevator To The Gallows, Atlantic City, Murmur of the Heart and Au Revoir, Les Enfants. Here we have his usual style of mixing the realistic with the romantic, recreating the streets and brothels of New Orleans as if we were traveling with him to the beginning of the century. His lighting is very low, which gives the romantic feeling an extra boost. There was also a lot of care and detail given to production design and costumes, and you really feel that Malle was really in love with the story.
It is, however, the performances that make the movie memorable. Keith Carradine, the only member of the Carradine family to keep a respectable career and not spiral into the Z-grade film world, plays Bellocq as a man desperate for love, with a lot of kindness but also intensity. Susan Sarandon also gives a great performance as a neglectful mother, and looks pretty damn hot in the process. We also get small roles from actors like Antonio Fargas (Starsky & Hutch) as the place’s piano player, and the always awesome Barbara Steele as a particularly loud prostitute. But of course, it’s young Brooke Shields, who was twelve years old at the time. Her age doesn’t hinder the power of the film, as her innocent, childish performance, mixed in with a bit of world knowledge, creates an incredible character, and it’s easy to see why anyone could fall in love with her. Of course, this movie received a lot of controversy because of the casting, not to mention the plot deals with prostitution of children and Brooke herself appears fully nude in more than one scene.
Don’t let the controversies confuse you. This is one of the last remains from the late 70’s when Hollywood was still interested in making art films. And as Hollywood, and America, becomes more conservative in it’s attitudes, it’s quite interesting seeing something that we know will never be made in the US again. Maybe in France. This is a great film and comes highly recommended.