Review: The Unspeakable Act
Let’s just get it out of the way: the titular deed referred to in The Unspeakable Act is none other than incest. But it’s the funny kind of incest, or the European kind, or the somehow charming kind, that Dan Sallitt’s improbably touching film takes as its topic. Instead of being creepy, The Unspeakable Act is an affirmation of Sallitt’s originality, bravery, and commitment as a filmmaker.
Unlike his previous two films, which mostly take place at the same lakeside cottage in Pennsylvania, The Unspeakable Act is set in a middle-Brooklyn manse where cute-as-a button 17-year-old Jackie Kimball (Tallie Medel, in her first feature) lives with her mother (Aundrea Fares), beloved brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron), and sister Jeanne (Kati Schwartz). As Jackie reveals in a perma-voiceover that does much to shape the film, she and Matthew have always been extremely close, but their relationship is complicated by her adult desires: hopelessly in love with her brother, Jackie ruminates constantly on how to make him hers forever. When Matthew brings a girlfriend home for dinner, Jackie pretends to be friendly, but promptly retreats to the toilet to vomit. She later tearfully reminds her understanding but unreceptive brother of her feelings during a powwow in the attic. Soon Jackie begins to visit Linda (Caroline Luft), a Manhattan psychotherapist who draws Jackie out and coaxes her into analyzing her discomfiting drives.
A coming-of-age tale with an uncommon twist, The Unspeakable Act approaches its subject with disarming candor. Tender and incisive, the film lingers on taboo desires, and unfolds them gently to reveal the confused love at their heart. Jackie is not a sicko or a psycho—in this regard, it helps that the movie features the sister and not the brother as the crush’s bearer—but an addled adolescent whose (not inconsiderable) intellectual capacities are no match for her incommodious longings and angst.
Essentially devoid of music, melodrama and punch lines, The Unspeakable Act develops slowly and deliberately, trusting the viewer to tune into subtle shifts in the characters’ relationships. As with Sallitt’s previous three films, The Unspeakable Act relies heavily on the (often first-time) actors’ performances. It uses irony in the service of revelation, not as armor, which sets it apart from so much independent American cinema. The microscopic budget, lack of a soundtrack, simple camerawork, and long takes raise the stakes. Sallitt makes each cut and transition especially expressive by limiting their numbers, and his roots in the films of Robert Bresson, Eric Rohmer, Jean Eustache, John Cassavetes, and Maurice Pialat are apparent.
A film critic and a Francophile who counts director Arnaud Desplechin among his advocates, Sallitt was already a Brooklyn-based-and-proud independent filmmaker back when Park Slope rents were cheap and no one gave a hoot about the lives of Greenpoint’s girls. Sallitt has made four films to date, including The Unspeakable Act. While the first three used some of the same actors and locations, Sallitt's latest film makes an almost clean break. His first, Polly Perverse Strikes Again! (86), a micro-budget feature shot on ¾-inch video about a Los Angeles photographer whose home life gets all shook up when a sex-crazed femme fatale from his salad days shows up in town, was only ever given a single 1986 run at West Hollywood’s EZTV. The film, which Sallitt describes as a cross between Bringing Up Baby and The Mother and the Whore—one could also add John Cassavetes to the mix—could have been a touchstone of American independent filmmaking, had it gotten distribution. His next film, Honeymoon (98), a drama about a couple of best friends who marry suddenly and spend an awkward honeymoon failing at sex, combines a Bergman-esque rigor and taste for conflict among intimates with Maurice Pialat’s naturalism. (The same can be said, although to a lesser degree, of The Unspeakable Act.) All the Ships at Sea (04), which bears a dedication to that Frenchman, is an hour-long examination of belief and theological debate conducted by two sisters who suffered a miserable childhood.
Like All the Ships at Sea, The Unspeakable Act was written, directed, and edited by Sallitt, with cinematography by Duraid Munajim. It, too, features a dedication to a French master: Eric Rohmer, whose own tale of forbidden desires Claire’s Knee seems woven into The Unspeakable Act’s DNA. Sallitt's films provide a glimmer of what could have been the standard for American independent cinema. As with his previous efforts, The Unspeakable Act is unpretentious despite its earnestness and fastidious attention to the contradictions and intricacies of human interaction. Sallitt’s is a pared-down, lean cinema that walks a tightrope without a net. With each successful crossing—and The Unspeakable Act is one—he deserves more recognition and applause.