‘Not a Pretty Picture’: A Director’s Unflinching Response to Trauma

by The Technical Blogs

The performances are multifaceted. Manenti herself was raped as a teenager and discusses this in the film. In critiquing his character, Carrington calls him “uneducated” (a polite substitute for jerk) and comes off nearly as glib, yet honest in his identification with the rapist. Anne Mundstuk, Coolidge’s boarding school roommate and confidante, is cast as her teenage self and recalls her own feelings at the time as well as her thoughts on re-enacting them.

Coolidge frames “Not a Pretty Picture” with her own expressions of vulnerability. It begins with a school recital performance of the most achingly pure of folkie love-songs “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” sung by Coolidge and shown in long shot from the perspective of two smirking boys in the audience. It ends with the filmmaker acknowledging the shame she felt and the lasting damage that the rapist inflicted.

Born of trauma, given a cautionary title, this is a movie of steely determination. Coolidge takes possession of her narrative, and the result is heartfelt and ruthless. In one its few contemporary reviews, the British critic Jill Forbes expressed horror at Coolidge’s evident “satisfaction” in restaging her assault, which she found “morbid.” (She also called the filmmaker a “brave woman.”)

Coolidge had attracted attention with an earlier documentary about her family, but “Not a Pretty Picture” led a curiously circumscribed existence. Its New York premiere at the Whitney Museum in March 1976, was apparently ignored by The New York Times and, seemingly, the Village Voice, which, in something surely crazy-making for the filmmaker, ran a long article the following week headlined “Rape Fantasies of Women.”

“Not a Pretty Picture” was shown mainly in media centers and at festivals, including the Second International Festival of Women’s Films, later in 1976. It ultimately got Coolidge the assignment to direct a commercial youth film, “Valley Girl” (which, although indifferently reviewed in 1983, has since developed a cult following thanks, in part, to the presence of Nicolas Cage). Coolidge has enjoyed a long, productive career, but she never made another “Not a Pretty Picture” — neither, to be fair, has anyone else.

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