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1917, the last months of legal prostitution in Storyville - New Orleans' red-light district. Hattie, a prostitute at the elegant home of Madame Nell, and her 12-year-old daughter Violet are the only ones awake with photographer Ernest J. Bellocq comes by with his camera. He takes pictures of Hattie and he fascinates Violet. Over the next few months, Nell arranges for the auction of Violet's virginity, Hattie marries and goes to St. Louis leaving Violet behind, and Violet determines to marry Bellocq. Is this idyllic or is she just a girl wearing rouge, soon to return to childhood?
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The scenes of the child in her undress were not lurid or sexually charged. Quite the opposite; they showed the child wanting to be seen sexually, wanting to be desired, but being seen for what she was, a child.
The movie was well made, beautifully filmed, but ultimately very sad.
Still, I understand why some might find the film objectionable. There is nudity, even nudity of a pubescent girl. There is open talk of sex. And some quasi moralists are more offended by that than by graphic violence. Sex, of course, is part of life and is legal, but it must not be shown or suggested very clearly. Murder, on the other hand, is illegal but is shown every night on TV with little protest from the moralists.
The acting here is seamless. Susan Sarandon gives her best performance, as does Brook Shields. But the performance that I found most startling was that of the bordello madame.
There was an area of New Orleans called Storyville, for some 20 years, where prostitution was confined, ending about World War I. That much of the plot is true. And the photographer Bellocq existed; some of his art has survived. But he didn't look anything like the character in this film, or so we are led to believe from descriptions of him.
I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. There is nothing I've seen like it. It is truly an art film.