Martha Coolidge’s creative nonfiction film Not a Pretty Picture (1976) is hitting cinemas in a new 4K restoration from Janus Films, screening this week in NYC at Anthology Film Archives. Not a Pretty Picture explores the experience of sexual assault through reenactments.
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In the seminal creative nonfiction film Not a Pretty Picture (1976), first-time filmmaker Martha Coolidge excavates the sexual assault she experienced as a prep school teenager by hiring actors to reenact scenes leading up to, following, and including the sexual assault. But this is not purely a docudrama rendering of an actual event. Coolidge regularly interviews the actors while shooting the scenes or after to discuss their reactions to what was depicted. In some of the film’s best scenes, Coolidge lets us watch her interactions and discussions with the actors while directing the scene.
The film serves as an essential artifact of 1970s attitudes and ideas about sexual assault. As it was one of the first films to try to talk openly about assault and the challenges of depicting and discussing it, it’s also been hugely influential. Watching it in 2024 is a reminder of how far we’ve come in the last 40+ years and how plus ça change, plus ça ne changera pas.
When Coolidge made the film, one of her key goals was to help break the silence and reduce the shame around sexual assault. Sadly, that’s work that still needs to be done. But if a similar film were made today, it would likely also be made for healing, like Robert Greene’s film Procession about sexual assault in the Catholic Church. If someone were to make a similar film today, they would likely consult mental health professionals throughout the filmmaking process, as Green did, including having one present on set for the actors. And for the traumatic assault scene, especially given the actress playing Martha (Michele Manenti) was herself a sexual assault survivor, an intimacy coordinator would be involved.
Listen to our podcast on depictions of childhood sexual assault in Slalom, Una, and The Tale
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Intimacy coordinators are a relatively recent invention. I first became aware of them when Canada’s Stratford Festival hired one in 2017 for their productions. They’ve been around for longer. In the last five years, they’ve become increasingly common in the film industry and have been widely publicized on projects with a lot of on-screen sex, like TV’s Normal People and, more recently, the film All of Us Strangers. Irish actor Paul Mescal, who appears in both, has never done a sex scene without one. There are still many projects in the US that don’t use them, and they’re even less common in other parts of the world, like France.
But could Coolidge’s goals of exploration through performance still be achieved with an intimacy coordinator, whose job is to choreograph scenes to the tee to make everyone comfortable? There would still be the embodied experience of reeenacting the event but less spontaneity about where things could go, including how dark they would get. I’d argue that would probably be enough, especially paired with the discussions about the scene — in fact, the actors and Coolidge would have to be more articulate about what they were doing and looking for to explain it to a third-party mediator.
Language and its limitations when talking about uncomfortable situations, especially ones fraught with unwarranted shame, like sexual assault, are key to Not a Pretty Picture. The discussions the actors have with each other and with Coolidge about how to perform the scenes, and later, their reactions to performing them, are the most compelling parts of the film. Nevertheless, they don’t quite have the vocabulary to explain what they mean, and they tend to express their feelings about it in black and white rather than through shades of grey.
Staging reenactments in Not a Pretty Picture
The reenactments thus allow them to express what they can’t in words, even if, by design, they’re a little bit overwrought. The sound is rudimentary enough, likely intentionally, to feel unpolished and unlike a commercial narrative film. The handheld camera of the reenactments lends informality, while the into-the-lens interviews with the actors and Coolidge follow talking head documentary conventions. Ultimately, the ideas in the reenactments are less nuanced than what Coolidge and her collaborators discuss. In a film made today, the discussions would likely be the centrepiece, the reenactments only tools for initiating those discussions. But it’s interesting and worthwhile to watch the beginnings of the development of this approach, where favouring the discussions may have been challenging if not outright unthinkable.
Staging sexual assault
When reenacting the sexual assault scene, Coolidge stops Jim Carrington, playing her assailant Curly, mid-scene because she feels he’s being too nice to the Martha character. Coolidge’s experience was a violent one rather than an essentially coercive one, and she wants to see that represented on screen. Carrington initially struggles because he wants to depict something, which he thinks better reflects how many of his friends would act. He feels that for them, the line between seduction and coercion bleeds until an assault happens. Coolidge is adamant that this is not what happened to her, so this is not what they should depict.
That’s understandable: the film is about her experience at a time when she was led to believe that even being physically and forcibly sexually violated was also her fault. But I wish Coolidge hadn’t shut down the possibility of a great multiplicity of perspectives. Multiple perspectives as praxis for depicting a complex issue is something we’re only starting to see in more recent films like Chase Joynt’s work on No Ordinary Man and Framing Agnes. Of course, Coolidge serves as a primary source that Joynt didn’t have for his subjects, but the film is limited by her own limitations of her own perspective. Still, it can be hard to be a reliable narrator of your own experiences, and the film always benefits when she allows others’ perspectives in.
A more nuanced take on sexual assault emerges in the collaborators’ discussions
Coolidge allows Carrington’s slightly more nuanced and complex take to bleed into the film through the behind-the-scenes discussions. Carrington suggests that you don’t have to be violently handled to be forced into sex and thus assaulted. In this way, Coolidge, Carrington, and Manenti talk around the idea of enthusiastic consent. I doubt the term had been coined in 1976; even today, it’s not widely understood. Carrington suggests, though, that men who commit assault simply don’t know they don’t have consent and haven’t thought to check. I’m not sure modern audiences would be quite so forgiving. In the end, Manenti physically fights off Carrington until she’s no longer has energy to resist.
Depictions of sexual assault are changing
Only in the last decade has it become more commonplace to suggest that just because you didn’t say no doesn’t mean you said yes, that an assailant can seem kind while being coercive, as Carrington suggests. Molly Manning Walker’s Un Certain Regard-winning film How to Have Sex (2023) features a very sensitive scene depicting how sex can happen through coercion. The film then deals with the event’s immediate aftermath, a traumatizing and silencing experience. Recent films about statutory rape, like The Tale (2018), Slalom (2021), and Palm Trees and Power Lines (2022), interrogate whether meaningful consent can even exist. The victim may think they’re giving consent, but power imbalances render this questionable.
Not a Pretty Picture would have been a conversation starter in the 1970s and still serves as one today. The film deliberately leans into, and sometimes upends, tropes of teen movies. These conventions place it in a recognizable, comfortable register. The interruptions to the narrative where we see behind-the-scenes work forces us to question what the re-enactments really depict. But the reenactments and the discussions both feel less nuanced than they should be for modern audiences because that nuance is outside of 1970s feminist imaginings.
Get our ebook on creative nonfiction film, Subjective Realities, which features interviews and essays on personal documentaries and documentaries designed to heal their subjects.
Related reading/listening to Martha Coolidge’s Not A Pretty Picture
Get our ebook on creative nonfiction. Subjective Realities features interviews with filmmakers discussing the ethical challenges of making personal films about traumatic events. The book explores multiple approaches to the “hybrid documentary”, which we describe as ‘creative nonfiction”, through interviews and essays.
Read more about creative nonfiction film. Robert Greene talks about staging reenactments of sexual assault to help victims heal in Procession. Angelo Madsen Minax discusses staging reenactments of his life with his family in North by Current.
Listen to our creative nonfiction podcasts. Listen to us discuss the book Subjective realities. We discuss the differences between depicting Christine Chubbuck’s story through fiction and nonfiction film. Listen to us discuss creative nonfiction films No Ordinary Man and John Ware Reclaimed, both featuring reenactments to different purposes.
More on sexual assault: Read my review of Slalom and my interview with its director. Listen to our podcast on depictions of childhood sexual assault in Slalom, Una, and The Tale. Read my review of Palm Trees and Power Lines. Read my review of The Tale and our interview with its director.