the unspeakable act In Focus: Dan Sallitt

Intimacy, in the most emotional, physical, heartbreakingly direct sense of the word, is incredibly hard to depict on film. When critics rave about the “intimate” styles of filmmakers like the Dardenne brothers or Wong Kar-Wai, they’re using the term at a level of abstraction, employing it as shorthand for visual proximity or emotional saturation. The films of Dan Sallitt – currently enjoying a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives to coincide with the theatrical release of his latest movie, The Unspeakable Act – embody and explore intimacy in a more complete sense. Each of Sallitt’s four films draws the audience into the most intimate of relationships; two focus on lovers and two on siblings. By shaving his scenarios down to the interactions between characters whose relationships are defined by their closeness, Sallitt allows us a remarkably expansive and empathetic view of their inner lives, illuminating fractals of emotion that expand and convulse kaleidoscopically the closer we get to his characters.

Polly Perverse Strikes Again!, Sallitt’s first film, is in some respects his most conventional. Described by the director as a cross between The Mother and the Whore and Bringing Up Baby, the film draws a love triangle between Nick (S.A. Griffin), his sensible girlfriend Arliss (Strawn Bovee), and his impulsive ex Theresa (Dawn Wildsmith), who appears back in his life out of nowhere after vanishing just as suddenly ten years ago. Arliss can’t believe the man she loves could have seen anything in this woman – vulgar, unkempt, fidgety, untrustworthy. Meeting Theresa convinces her that Nick may be less fulfilled by their relationship than she thought, a conclusion that Nick resents and Theresa seeks to take advantage of to wedge her way back into Nick’s bed. This all culminates in a confrontational scene between the three characters that manages to pull off the snap and sting of screwball comedy better than almost anything else in modern cinema. Polly Perverse is easily Sallitt’s funniest film, and demonstrates that he had a keen visual sense from day one.

Sallitt didn’t make another feature until twelve years later, when he directed the movie that more or less set the template for his subsequent works, 1998’s Honeymoon. Dylan McCormick and Edith Meeks star as Michael and Mimi, platonic friends who suddenly decide to get married without having had sex. The meat of the film takes place in and around the lakeside cabin where the happy newlyweds retreat, only to find that they’re sexually incompatible. Honeymoon takes Polly Perverse’s remarkable frankness about sex and concentrates and amplifies it, resulting in an almost unbearable open and truthful film. A good deal of the runtime finds Michael and Mimi grappling with each other’s naked bodies, desperately trying to understand why their intimacy just won’t click. Sallitt makes the wise choice of not explaining away the ambiguities of their attraction, instead forcing us to marinate in the discomfort of their indeterminate feelings. Relationships are not as easily categorized and compartmentalized into sexual and non-sexual categories as they might seem to be, a theme that Sallitt picks up again in The Unspeakable Act.

Sallitt followed Honeymoon with another chamber drama, All the Ships at Sea. With this film, he began to investigate a new kind of intimacy, that which exists between siblings. As far as sisters go, Evelyn (Bovee) and Virginia (Meeks) are not particularly close. They haven’t seen each other since before Virginia moved to the Midwest and joined a religious cult, but the women’s mother suggests that Evelyn take Virginia to the family cabin after she returns home in a state of distress. Evelyn, a Catholic professor of theology, attempts to get Virginia to open up about her beliefs, discovering that her abnormal convictions are startlingly strong. Evelyn and Virginia’s conversations unfold at a gradually escalating pace. Both sisters are remarkably articulate about their faith and feelings, and Bovee and Meeks masterfully walk the tightrope of Sallitt’s mannered, literary dialogue. The film finds Sallitt taking a huge leap as a visual stylist as well; his sense of composition adds remarkably subtle ripples of emotional communication to nearly every scene. In a swift 64 minutes, All the Ships at Sea sets up an unsolvable problem – which is more important to faith, fervor or prudence? – and traces the sisters’ attempts to chip away at it without striking each other in the process.

The Unspeakable Act feels like a culmination of everything Sallitt has explored so far in his filmmaking career, cross-pollinating the sexual and sibling relationships that define his oeuvre. Teenage protagonist Jackie Kimball (Tallie Medel) lets us know up front through voice over what the title refers to: she’s in love with her older brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). Where other films would tease this personality thread out over the course of the narrative, Sallitt favors an open approach by sharing it immediately, using voice over narration as a radically confessional audience address. While this film isn’t bound to the cabin where most of his last two features took place, the Kimball family home looms large, physically and thematically: it’s a mysteriously vast Brooklyn house that seems suspended out of time; even the children who live there don’t understand how their parents afforded to buy it. Sallitt strategically cuts away to hallways, windows, staircases, and photos throughout the movie, endowing spaces and objects with the weight of meaning and memory. The Kimball family shares this space, yet its members can wander to far-off distances within its passages. Jackie and Matthew convene in the attic to smoke cigarettes when the rest of the house slumbers; it’s here that their intimacy takes shape in its most beautiful and terrifying form. Jackie wants Matthew to have sex with her; Matthew knows this would be wrong, but his love for his sister remains strong, and not always as clearly defined as might make us comfortable. When Matthew leaves for college, Jackie’s loneliness drifts through the cavernous house like a fog. She begins seeing a therapist, and having sex with a boyfriend. Neither of these plot points attempt to “solve” her character. The therapy scenes are remarkable, giving rise to more questions than answers. Along with the narration and her unguarded interactions with Matthew, Sallitt structures these scenes to let Jackie speak for herself, wringing incredible emotional texture out of the spectacle of a bright teenager attempting to explain feelings she can barely understand.

The film eventually draws to a hopeful resolution, but the tone of the conclusion has a bittersweet aftertaste. All three of Sallitt’s previous films abandon his characters at more or less the same point: their desires unfulfilled, they continue to pursue them and hope for the best. The Unspeakable Act ends on an even more open-ended note, asking what will happen to Jackie after she’s given up nearly everything that’s defined her life so far. It’s a perfect finale, but not an easy one to watch; it’s difficult to let Jackie wander out of the darkness of that childhood mansion into the big wide world without us. To watch The Unspeakable Act is to share in Jackie’s most private, vulnerable, unfathomable moments, to be invited places that only the closest of friends, lovers, and family members ever get a peek at. Sallitt knows well that such levels of intimacy are exhilarating, but never entirely satisfying or conclusive. Every one of the 91 minutes we spend in Jackie’s world is riveting and revealing, but the most obvious mark of the film’s devastating power is that they don’t seem like nearly enough.

The Films of Dan Sallitt play at Anthology Film Archives from 2/28 to 3/8.

The Unspeakable Act plays at Anthology 3/1 to 3/7.