Movies that deal with incest are often couched in melodrama, dealing with hidden transgressions and shattered family roles. But The Unspeakable Act, which makes its Chicago premiere this week at Gene Siskel Film Center, is different. Written and directed by Dan Sallitt (a former Reader contributor), this hushed, discreet indie drama details the complicated relationship between two siblings of a tight-knit, upper-middle-class Brooklyn family. Seventeen-year-old Jackie (Tallie Medel), the bright and seemingly well-adjusted younger daughter, harbors romantic and sexual feelings for her 18-year-old brother, Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). He never openly reciprocates them, but they share an intimacy that complicates their other relationships.
The Unspeakable Act isn’t presented as a case study of incestuous behavior, nor does it offer any insights into the psychology of incestuous desire. In fact it actively works against the Oedipal notions we bring to an incest story. In the grand tradition of French director Eric Rohmer, to whom Sallitt dedicates the film, The Unspeakable Act is a story in which transgression is considered but never acted upon.
As viewers, we constantly analyze and critique a movie’s characters, basing our judgments on our own ideas of taste, ethics, and morality. We’re conditioned to accept the strictest notions of right and wrong: good guys and bad guys; proper and improper behavior. The Unspeakable Act challenges these notions in part because Sallitt refuses to judge his characters; there are no good guys or bad guys, only believable, acutely rendered people whose shortcomings are innately human.
This is where the film deviates from most incest stories, which either exploit the act (Flowers in the Attic) or condemn it as despicable and detrimental to the family unit (Chinatown). With its muted cinematography and deliberate pace, The Unspeakable Act is anything but lurid, and the family unit is “impossibly close,” as Jackie puts it. (Jackie and Matthew’s father died a few years after Jackie was born, leaving them with their mother, an older sister, and an older brother who’s since left the household.)
Despite the sensational subject matter, the drama is understated. Jackie casually spells out the conflict in the film’s opening voice-over: “In the spring of 2011, at the age of 18, my brother Matthew got his first real girlfriend. I somehow thought that he and I had a unspoken agreement that we belonged to each other, which was really pretty stupid of me.”
Instead of pushing Jackie and Matthew into taboo behavior, Sallitt situates them directly before it and explores the possible origin and meaning of their emotions; alongside the audience, he seems to be searching for a way to justify their mutual desire. This may bore or frustrate some viewers: the appeal of an incest story is the prospect of seeing repressed, taboo desires erupt into explicit sex and ensuing scandal. In The Unspeakable Act, the heart of the drama is not the transgression but the curious lack thereof.
Jackie’s feelings, however fervent, stem from her arrested development. In addition to the new girlfriend, Matthew is also preparing to leave home for his freshman year at Princeton, and Jackie can’t accept what may be the beginning of the end of their lifelong intimacy. Not until Matthew leaves does Jackie, faced with the reality that she can’t spend her life with him, confront her emotions in a pragmatic fashion.
Talking to Mubi.com, Sallitt has described Jackie as “an unsolvable puzzle,” someone whose impulses are plausible but paradoxical. She acknowledges the inconvenient nature of her desire but refuses to let Matthew go. She admits as much to him, glibly labeling his new romance as an attempt to “grow up and have mature, adult relationships and not immature, stunted ones like ours.”
With her incongruous emotions, Jackie is impervious to psychoanalysis, as Sallitt illustrates in a series of nearly comical scenes involving a therapist. Jackie talks in circles, at one point describing herself as someone who loves to talk yet is painfully shy. This rigmarole culminates in her recollection of a dream that suggests her incestuous feelings are a form of narcissism; the idea offers some sense of thematic closure even as it opens up more avenues of her personality.
These oblique scenes are meant to suggest the impenetrability of human emotion. Sallitt’s characters are intricate beings, and their issues, though grounded by the naturalistic performances, can seem so inscrutable as to be otherworldly. Jackie and Matthew’s saga may never end, but the film must. Sallitt might have come up with some tidy conclusion, but he’s comfortable letting this situation resolve itself the way most situations do: with time.