After making a series of acclaimed and controversial films in his native France, director Louis Malle made his American debut with this disturbing but visually beautiful story about Hattie (Susan Sarandon), a prostitute working in New Orleans' Storyville district at the turn of the century. When Hattie becomes pregnant, she opts to keep her baby and gives birth to a daughter named Violet, raising her in the brothel where she continues to work. Twelve years later, Violet (Brooke Shields) is old enough to attract the attentions of the brothel's customers, but emotionally has one foot in the adult world of her surroundings and the other in the na´vetÚ of childhood. With Hattie's consent, Violet's virginity is auctioned off to the customers of the house; but for Violet, the pull between childhood and adulthood becomes most clear -- and most painful -- when she draws the affections of Bellocq (Keith Carradine), a photographer who has been working on a photo series about Storyville prostitutes. Violet's blend of childlike innocence and adult sensuality is profoundly attractive to him, but their relationship quickly becomes problematic, especially when Hattie leaves Violet behind to get married.
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A semi-scandal upon its release in 1978, this Louis Malle film is set in a turn-of-the-century, New Orleans bordello and focuses on a girl named Violet (then-child actress Brooke Shields) whose imminent twelfth birthday signals her "readiness" to become a career prostitute. Typical of Malle, the outwardly forbidden nature of the story and relationships within are morally obscured by the immediate experiences and unqualified urges of the characters. The little heroine brings a distinctly youthful and innocent view to the milieu, and the introduction of a photographer (Keith Carradine)--who eventually marries Violet--in the brothel carries the suggestion that there is art and beauty to be explored there. Susan Sarandon is beguiling as Violet's mother, who seems to unfold in the cameraman's presence. The film moves a little stiffly, a little slowly, possibly from a heavy emphasis on period art direction and Sven Nykvist's moody if gorgeous photography. --Tom Keogh
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