The Mystery of the Other:
Dan Sallitt


At the start of Caterina (2019), five friends relax together, drinking and enjoying each other’s company. One woman propounds her theory that sexual attraction is the primary force that draws couples together, and that everything that we later learn about our partners – such as their religious or political beliefs – is just a “cross-check”, a supporting verification.


This speech indirectly announces the major terrain explored by American writer-director Dan Sallitt (born 1955) in all his films: the ambiguity of relationships – whether in friendship or love, or between the members of a family – and how difficult it is to comprehend and navigate these relationships. The Other is always an enigma.


In the remaining 15 minutes or so of this most recent work by Sallitt, we observe one of the listeners to the monologue, Caterina (Agustina Muñoz, familiar from Matías Piñeiro’s films), experience a series of encounters. There is an angry man who tells her she is too available, too open to others; there is an amant d’un jour (one-day lover) who emotionally disconnects immediately after their shared sexual intimacy.


There is no common denominator, no rule across these diverse instances of relating to other people. Each incident presents its own mystery, fraught with the possibility – perhaps the likelihood – of mutual misunderstandings, crossed wires, mismatched intentions and intensities.


It is this zone of mystery in everyday life that Sallitt focuses on. To adapt the words of philosopher Donna Haraway, Sallitt is an artist who “stays with the trouble”, and never seeks an easy, quick or reassuring escape route from the problems that he dramatises.


How can a close friendship survive the ravages of passing years (Fourteen, 2019)? How can two lovers who have never slept together cope with the first, stressful weeks of being married (Honeymoon, 1998)? Sallitt’s films eschew the stereotypical diagnosis of troubled individuals as demanding or neurotic, repressed or depressed. Every relationship that he depicts is a complicated two-way, give-and-take situation.


Leonard Cohen sang of those emotional states that “begin with your family, but soon come around to your soul”. Sallitt may agree with that: sometimes he shows parents who are cold and fearsome (All the Ships at Sea, 2004), or extremely close siblings who are tempted by an “unspeakable” incestuous desire (The Unspeakable Act, 2012). And he emphasises the fundamental reality, for us all, of solitude, aloneness.


Sallitt’s cinema has a hushed, quiet atmosphere. There is no comforting soundtrack music to fill the holes and silences in conversations. The camera angle on people is almost always static, and sometimes holds for a long time on whoever is speaking – Sallitt refuses the stale convention of compulsively cutting away to the listener in reverse-shot. The acting has a naturalness that can be disconcerting in the nuances of awkwardness and inwardness that are finely captured.


A first-time viewer might conclude that Sallitt is essentially an observational filmmaker, placing his trust in the written words of his screenplay and the ability of his performers. There is an aura of theatricality in the way his characters stand or sit to address each other (as in the conversation between the older sister and a priest in All the Ships at Sea) – and also of the novelistic, like in the voice-over narration by Jackie (Tallie Medel) that punctuates The Unspeakable Act.


Yet Sallitt, similar to Kelly Reichardt, is truly a formalist of film, in the richest and most open sense. When he knowingly deviates from his own system of filming – when, without warning, the camera suddenly moves, or the shot remains fixed on a space no longer filled with people – the expressive power of such cinematic gestures is palpable for the spectator.


As a film critic, Sallitt is an expert at analysing every kind of cinema, from the spiritual and contemplative (Robert Bresson) to the chaotic and passionate (Maurice Pialat). His personal cinephilia is omnivorous. And this mixture of critical wisdom and small-scale, artisanal practice (in the manner of Jean-Claude Biette) has made Sallitt into a figure who inspires other, younger people around him, such as Ted Fendt (Classical Period, 2018), Sofia Bohdanowicz (her The Hardest Working Cat in Showbiz [2020] delightfully brings one of Sallitt’s blog essays to the screen) or Piñeiro, whose Hermia & Helena (2016) features Sallitt in a small but memorable role.


In fact, Piñeiro credits Sallitt’s films with demonstrating “an energy and a way and idea of production in connection with style” that filmmakers in countries beyond the USA are adapting as a model. Such an influence is the sign of a quiet revolution in contemporary cinema.


This is the extended version of an essay that, in French translation, accompanied a retrospective of Dan Sallitt’s work at the Journées cinématographiques festival in Saint-Denis, February 2022.


© Adrian Martin 5 December 2021

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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