Louis Malle’s Unsettling Takes on Pubescent Femininity in Black Moon (1975) & Pretty Baby (1978)

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One of the most discomforting aspects of August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s art house fantasy piece Black Moon, is its depiction of a young woman on the verge of adulthood. The film has a way of patronizing & infantilizing its seemingly teenage protagonist, a dynamic Malle likely picked up from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland along with that source material’s down-the-rabbit-hole story structure. It’s not uncommon for Malle to face controversy for the sex politics in his films, something that even cropped up here when Alli questioned the intent behind Black Moon’s literal war of the sexes & Boomer expressed discomfort with the film’s panty-dropping gag in our original Swampchat discussion. Though, if Black Moon‘s depiction of a young girl’s journey into womanhood is uncomfortable, then Malle’s follow-up film Pretty Baby was an unapologetic act of aggression. If the director’s coldly detached, yet oddly lighthearted depiction of a young woman being indoctrinated into fantasy realm domesticity & interspecies breastfeeding is discomforting, then his application of that exact same tone to a preteen girl’s life as a sex worker in a turn of the century New Orleans brothel is an outright horror show. At the very least it was a bold choice for the French filmmaker’s American debut. At its worse it was a deliberate, pedal to the floor provocation.

That’s not to say that Pretty Baby is an empty or spiritually corrupt slice of filmmaking. In fact, if you remove the “underage” aspect from its protagonist sex worker’s character traits, what you’d get really wouldn’t be that far off from the film’s cutesy Oscar bait equivalent Rambling Rose. Pretty Baby faced accusations of being child pornography & was banned in a couple areas of North America, mostly for its nude depictions of a far too young Brooke Shields, but it’s a much tamer work than what those criticisms would suggest. Set during the final days of New Orleans’s storied Storyville district, where prostitution was once legal, Pretty Baby is for the most part a tame costume drama staged at a very specific time in this city’s history. Although its more sensationalist content is what immediately comes to mind when you conjure the film, it’s for the most part a laidback, melancholy hangout in the heat & humidity of New Orleans courtyards that commands most of the film’s general vibe. Just like how Black Moon is more interested in carving out a very particular fantasy realm space to dwell in than following the more action-packed aspects of its wartime plot, Pretty Baby is a quiet, languid, depressive work with an oddly detached, carefree worldview despite the stakes of its central conflict. You could argue that it’s that exact judgement-free take on the material that makes the film so uncomfortable in the first place, but it’s still difficult to claim that the its main goal was to shock & disgust. It more obviously just wants to hang around in its own earth tone drunkenness & historical accuracy.

Not yet a teenager, Brooke Shields stars as young sex worker in a very busy brothel. Her mother, played by (the always beautiful & forever talented) Susan Sarandon, is a cruelly dismissive employee of the same madame & pushes to have her daughter’s virginity auctioned off as quickly as possible so that the young girl can become self-sufficient. After a particularly painful experience with a john & her mother taking off with a new husband/former client, the young girl runs away from “home” and into the arms of a fine art photographer named Bellocq. Apparently modeled after a real-life photographer who documented Storyville sex workers, Bellocq forms a strange domesticity with his new, unexpected ward & marries her, despite her horrifically young age. Although they’re husband & wife, Bellocq & his child bride have a clear father-daughter dynamic that would be oddly sweet if it weren’t for all the icky lovemaking (something that would easily be defined as rape by today’s standards). Malle maintains an emotional distance in the way he covers the material here, the same detached vibe he brought to Black Moon’s fantasy realm dreamscape. It can be more than a little alarming considering the inflammatory nature of the material he’s working with, (unlike Black Moon, Pretty Baby could in no way be mistaken for a fairy tale), but it also feels true to the long dead era he’s trying to provoke, unlike the softened melodrama of works like Rambling Rose.

Even outside their judgement-free, yet male gaze tinted takes on pubescent femininity & shared, dreamlike sense of languid pacing, Black Moon & Pretty Baby actually occupy a surprising amount of common thematic territory. They’re both stories about young women (one very young) trying to navigate worlds where they don’t belong. They both feature naked children running wild & free (although in a far less sexualized context in one case) and a strange fascination with breastfeeding (sometimes with a human baby, sometimes with a talking unicorn). Pretty Baby’s voodoo priestess recalls Black Moon’s mode of immersion in Natural Magic & Black Moon’s varying examples of what the womanhood its protagonist is entering looks like are echoed in Pretty Baby’s performances from the always-welcome B-movie goddess Barbara Steele & and an elderly madame with a braying, John Waters cadence to her line delivery. Although the settings of these films are wildly different, it’s easy to see the specific touch Louis Malle brings to both pictures & how they work as a thematic pairing. The question of how that thematic throughline handles the hefty topic of pubescent femininity in either work is up for debate, however. And since Malle stubbornly remains detached in both pictures, that debate largely falls on the shoulders of his audience.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its lame duck unicorn with the divine unicorns of Legend (1985), and last week’s look at how its surrealist take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland compares to the 1988 stop-motion animation classic Alice.

-Brandon Ledet

The Red Kimona (1925)

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“I believe it takes a woman to believe in a woman’s motives, and every story intended for the screen should have a woman working on it at some stage to convince the audience of women.” – Dorothy Davenport

Dorothy Davenport was somewhat of an early trailblazer in the arena of women filmmakers. Her third picture, 1925’s The Red Kimona, is credited as being one of the first independent film productions ever handled predominately by women. Davenport was credited as a producer & a writer for the film, among other female voices, and acted in an uncredited role as the film’s head director, often nixing ideas from first time director Walter Lang she didn’t approve. Much like Davenport’s first film, the drug addiction drama Human Wreckage, The Red Kimona garnered a great deal of controversy in its time, to the point where it was even banned in the UK. Released years before the alarmist “road to ruin” movies of the 30s & 40s, the film was way ahead of its time in terms of racy content in the silent era, remarkable for its pedigree as a woman’s tragic story told by a woman filmmaker in a time where they were a rare breed.

Telling the real-life story of Gabrielle Darley, a woman tricked into a life of prostitution in 1920s New Orleans, The Red Kimona depicts the ramifications of “years of bondage-sorrowful-sordid.” When, early in the film, Darely discovers that her boyfriend/pimp is using money earned through her sex work to purchase a wedding ring intended for another woman, she flips out & shoots him dead. In a California Supreme Court case that made national headlines, Darley was acquitted of the crime because of what the deceased put her through in New Orleans. The movie mostly tackles what followed Darley’s infamous fall from grace, depicting a world of closed doors & unwelcome faces as she tries to piece her life back together following the trial. She finds a brief respite as a wealthy socialite’s publicity generator (which in its own way is like being pimped), but she finds this prospect exhausting & frivolous: Darley longs to “seek redemption” in servitude as a nurse, but she discovers that not many employers are willing to give an opportunity to a woman with a public record of murder & prostitution.

The Red Kimona is a difficult film to pin down. I initially watched it to see a 1920s depiction of New Orleans’ famed Storyville district, which has a very Old World Europe look to it here, but most of the film is set in California. Despite the expectations set by later “road to ruin” films, which would’ve ended with a guilty verdict at Darley’s murder trial & a firm warning to young love-hungry girls not to follow in her path, the film avoids themes about the evils of sex work & instead focuses on charity, poverty, exploitation, and the lack of opportunity for a woman trying to make it on her own. The writing can be really sharp sometimes, like when the preying pimp creepily urges Darley to “be a good little girl”, but sometimes the prose gets mighty purple, like in the line “Three words – I love you – sometimes as beautiful and sacred as a prayer, sometimes a cowardly lie.” And even though the film isn’t quite as creative in its political moralizing as Häxan‘s tirade against the way we deal with mental illness, it does have its own interesting visual touches, especially in the way that the Storyville district’s (literal) red light, the distant glow of warfare, and the titular red kimona are all hand-colorized to glow red while the rest of the film is a contrasting black & white.

The movie also proved frustrating for Davenport herself. Even though everything depicted about Darley’s real life Supreme Court case was a matter of public record, she was still successfully sued for making the film without her subject’s permission. The financial blow was substantial, but Davenport still went on to produce more Big Issue films & started a drug rehab program designed to help relieve the “upward struggle of such unfortunates” depicted in her Human Wreckage film. The Red Kimona is far from a forgotten masterpiece, but it is an interesting early example of a female protagonist struggling with some difficult, salacious issues in a way that isn’t as dismissive or moralizing as what you’d typically expect from 20s cinema. If you’re a fan of subtly transgressive films from the silent era, Davenport’s The Red Kimona might be well worth your attention.

-Brandon Ledet