Dan Sallitt is someone I know, so although it’s lovely to have him in Edinburgh with his new film, THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT, I was nervous about seeing his film in case I didn’t like it. But somebody had already told a friend, “You needn’t worry,” and so it proved. His movie is a tender, sensitive and surprisingly funny film about a seventeen-year-old girl in love with her big brother, and by “in love” I mean just what you would assume I meant if I weren’t talking about a sister and brother. Jackie wants to try “the I word” with her brother, who gently demurs. There’s no shocking or offensive content here, though, apart from that one idea. Maybe this film is really just about that moment that comes in nearly everyone’s life when they’re in love with someone they can’t have?
Dan’s movie is beautiful both in surface (a pared-down style with no camera movement, maybe two pans) and content. The whole thing is inhabited by a kind of filmic and emotional grace. With elegant, formal compositions and a measured pace, he keeps the emotional temperature under control, so that we feel the passions seething inside the characters rather than seeing them erupt all over the screen — but this is by no means a cold film, quite the reverse. Nor does it feel slow — “measured” is not a euphemism for the S word.
Credit must go also to the excellent cast, particularly Tallie Medel as Jackie, the heroine with the socially unacceptable urges towards her brother (Sky Hirschkron, also very fine). She has a fascinating face. You can just see the thoughts flickering behind it, as though she were translucent.
Several of the reviews have focused on the calm performance style, as if it were something uniquely stylised and strange. I didn’t find it so, and I asked Dan about it and he doesn’t really get what that’s about either. To me, it was clearly a version of recognizable human behaviour, the way people do in fact speak. In the same way Altman’s overlapping dialogue is both a noticeable directorial choice and an authentic depiction of how people talk. Dan obviously likes his performances fairly low-key, the tone conversational, the obvious left uninflected. To me it made the film all the more moving, and funny.
Eric Rohmer is obviously a stylistic watchword, but I was pleased to spot a shout-out to Preston Sturges in the use of the expression “Topic A” (which means sex, according to THE PALM BEACH STORY). Another master of dialogue who likes his characters articulate. Dan explained that he felt that the phrase “Topic A” should be in common use and he wanted to popularize it. “I don’t think this film will be the tipping point, though,” he added.
You never know…