Dan Sallitt, The Unspeakable Act 2012, digital video, color, sound, 91 minutes. Jackie (Tallie Medel).


I REMEMBER THINKING as I watched Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act at the 2012 BAMcinemaFest that it’s an American version of an Éric Rohmer film. The comparison was validated by the final credit, a thank-you to the French master of movies as conversations on morality and ethics, where light—from the sun, the moon, or a carefully placed lamp—often has the last word. Nine months later, a more immediate comparison comes to mind: The film is an antidote to Lena Dunham’s Girls.

The unspeakable act of the title is sister/brother incest. Seventeen-year-old Jackie (Tallie Medel) is in love with her eighteen-year-old brother, Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). The two siblings live with their mother and slightly older sister in a modest but quite lovely house with a lawn, trees, and a front porch in a Brooklyn neighborhood that is neither hip nor gentrified. There’s another brother who’s living abroad, and with whom the mother communicates by letter. She’s a writer who never publishes—a woman of many words, few of them spoken.

For Jackie, her brother Matthew is what theories of romance categorize as “the impossible object of desire.” Since Matthew is determined to find someone from a different gene pool to share his life with, his imminent departure for Princeton precipitates a crisis. Jackie doesn’t want to accept that it is the beginning of the end of their intimacy, which has been, as far as actions are concerned, entirely platonic. “Your brother is very conservative,” their mother remarks apropos of something else, but Jackie understands that the comment is directed at her. She longs for her brother to stay with her forever because he is the person with whom she is most closely bonded, but, temperamentally, he couldn’t be less like her. He’s the self and the other rolled into one.

After Matthew leaves, Jackie becomes seriously depressed. Mom suggests psychotherapy and, hallelujah, the therapist doesn’t prescribe drugs. Instead, it’s the old-fashioned talking cure, and, initial resistance notwithstanding, Jackie thrives. Medel is a remarkable young actress who conveys Jackie’s complicated thought processes and emotional responses—both subtle and bold—with fluidity and a total lack of self-consciousness. She and Sallitt have created a character who aspires not to be “the voice of her generation,” but rather to follow her own rigorous path to knowledge, whether anyone loves her for it or not. Wryly commenting on having achieved “transference,” she speculates that she might end up as a therapist herself: “First you wonder how your own head works, and then you get interested in other people’s heads”—a wise and generous enough statement to make her my role model for life.

Anthology Film Archives, where The Unspeakable Act plays through Thursday, is also showcasing Sallitt’s earlier features: All the Ships at Sea (2004), Honeymoon (1998), and Polly Perverse Strikes Again! (1986). Over the years, Sallitt has accumulated a dedicated group of supporters, who champion his films because they are about serious adults trying to articulate problems that aren’t at all cool (religion and faith; sex and friendship). I find Sallitt’s films prior to The Unspeakable Act at best miscalculated in their attempts to depict characters who are severely repressed using dour, inexpressive mise-en-scènes, stagey dialogue, and wooden acting. The Unspeakable Act shares many of the stylistic choices of these earlier films. It is framed for the most part in static, medium shots with minimal editing within scenes. It is dialogue-heavy and, with the exception of Medel, the actors sound as if they are uncomfortable speaking someone else’s words. What’s different is that this film is awash in color—dusty rose and soft peach, vivid yellows and greens—and that the light dappling almost every scene is exquisite. It is impossible to separate the inner light Medel brings to the film—she is a radiant actor with a rare gift for being in the moment—from the way that Sallitt and cinematographer Duraid Munajim bring the light of the world to her. The result is a film as sensuous as it is intelligent. You might think of it as the first real film of Sallitt’s career.

Amy Taubin

“The Unspeakable Act and the films of Dan Sallitt” runs through Friday, March 8, at Anthology Film Archives in New York.