, 04 Aug 2013
To tackle a controversial subject like child prostitution, a sensitive director like Louis Malle was needed. His luscious visuals,each scene beautifully posed,suited the subject as the film is set around the photographer,Bellocq in his view of Madame Livingstone's 'house' and its inhabitants. The controversy was that one of the inhabitants is 12 year old Violet,a child of Hattie,a 'lady of pleasure' and later,the subject of Bellocq's interest.
What emerged from the film was that Malle depicted birth (in the first scene) and life,mainly because the film has great vivacity in the brothel scenes. The film moved at a controlled pace developing the scenes like a tour through an art gallery. The colours were as deep and rich as the ostentatious decoration; the girls were like moving figures in a particular landscape in rich dresses which flowed through some scenes.
When Hattie,Violet's mother leaves for St,Louis with her fiance, she leaves Violet in the house. Soon after, she is auctioned for $400 using dialogue she had learned from the girls. To her, there was no great mystery to sex but she began to put on airs and became the child again. However,she received her comeuppance when she is caught playing sex games with the black children of the brothel servants and is soundly beaten. That was the first time that the racial angle was raised; the 'house' clients and the girls were white as miscegenation was illegal under the Jim Crow laws. Violet .left too and made the pivotal moment in the film as she went to live with Bellocq.
Violet may have thought that she was mature in her attitudes but she was still a child. Bellocq's photo of her sitting demurely upright on a chair with a doll might have come straight from Pears' Soap adverts. She wanted to be the centre of his attention but he cannot really cope with her; he knew that such a relationship,even in that environment, was probably not on.
Even when the brothel dies,due to the local Puritans wanting to close the houses of sin in Storyvile, life would still continue somewhere else. The way in which music was used to underscore the final scenes was especially noteworthy; the 'Professor', the piano player, played to an empty house even though the music of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton still syncopated its own life and rhythm. What New Orleans lost was Chicago's gain.
This theme of life moving on was the basis of the final scenes where the performances were understated but very effective. I suppose it was a happy ending for Violet and a 'happy' ending from the moral viewpoint in that she might achieve 'respectability' but the road would be long. She liked being what she was,the only world she knew was the 'house', the girls, the clients and Madame Livingstone none of whom give up as they are all so life-affirming. Sin smiled whilst Holiness frowned.
This was a multi-layered film which showed us the reality of life in New Orleans in 1917. It was good to engage the audience's attention to a time when apparently there was more live and let live than today, although this view may be illusory,just like fond visions of the 'good old days'. If the film had preached,it would have failed as a work of art; however, it did not and thus provoked thoughtful reactions.
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