Submission Feels Wildly Out of Step with This #MeToo Time

Mar 7, 2018 at 6:00 am
Ted (Stanley Tucci) finds himself seduced by Angela's (Addison Timlin) novel, and other things.
Ted (Stanley Tucci) finds himself seduced by Angela's (Addison Timlin) novel, and other things. COURTESY OF GREAT POINT MEDIA

It's almost certainly a coincidence, but it's hard to imagine a film coming out at a more unfortunate time than Submission. In the midst of a wave of neo-puritanism and hashtag activism regarding sexual behavior, Submission tells the familiar story of an affair between a college professor and a student, of a ruthless sexual predator and a helpless, innocent victim — but it's not the story you're thinking of. It's a curious film, almost quaintly out of date and out of touch with the times. Imagine, if you will, a made-for-TV adaptation of a Joyce Carol Oates novel reshaped into a timid remake of Fatal Attraction.

Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) is a once-promising novelist now passing time as a tenured professor in an idyllic but remote college, his teaching duties apparently limited to letting a group of stereotypical students stare at him blankly as he encourages them to discuss (or destroy) each others' writing.

One day, to his great surprise, Angela Argo (Addison Timlin), the young woman sitting quietly in the back corner, actually pops up with an opinion. And, even better, admiration for Swenson's sole published novel. And cites her own novel-in-progress, which she'd be ever so grateful if he would read.

Although he's barely noticed Angela Argo before, everyone else on campus, from fellow academic Magda Moynahan (Janeane Garofalo) to the school librarian already know she's bad news. Unpersuaded, Ted is bowled over by Angela's novel Eggs, which depicts a series of sexual encounters between a teenage girl and various older men (including a teacher, of course). He even digs up her previous work, a collection of autobiographical poems about phone sex. Soon he's championing her work in class and pushing it to his editor in place of his own long-delayed second novel, even while making excuses to his wife (Kyra Sedgwick) about long absences and strange phone calls from young women who don't leave their names.

As adapted by director Richard Levine from Francine Prose's eighteen-year-old novel Blue Angel (the filmmakers wave copies of von Sternberg's great 1930 film across the screen just so you don't miss the belabored connection), Submission is so willfully insular and one-sided that it's almost quaint. Sure, there's a little bit of sex and a few dramatizations of Angela's breathily erotic prose, but despite all that and an engagingly understated performance by Timlin, the film never moves even an inch away from the professor's short-sighted point of view.

Swenson is portrayed as an all-around nice guy who just happens to get carried away by his love of literature; he's so blithely unaware of the trap he's falling into that the film often steers very close to unintentional comedy. (The wigged Tucci even looks a bit like Stephen Colbert, which only adds to the sense of benign cluelessness.)

Submission is so bizarrely confused about the story it's trying to tell and the emotional dimensions of its characters that it ultimately misses whatever dramatic point might have been intended; there is puzzlingly little at stake for the characters or their lives. In von Sternberg's film The Blue Angel, Emil Jannings lost his teaching job and ended up humiliating himself as a run-down circus performer. The worst thing Submission can throw at its protagonist is a grotesque but bloodless meeting with a faculty ethics committee.