Despite being a relatively well-made, exceedingly well-acted film, Submission has a litany of significant and fundamental flaws that simply cannot be ignored. Written and directed by Richard Levine, the film is based on Francine Prose’s novel Blue Angel, and tells the tale of Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci, “Transformers: Age of Extinction”), an author and creative writing professor. Unfortunately, Ted is not inherently an interesting character, but instead drowns in clichés: Having written one successful book, he struggles to produce a second; despite being married to the wonderful Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick, “The Edge of Seventeen”) he is a discontented middle-aged man; and he loathes his academic colleagues, who all seem pretentious and insufferable to what he believes is his more daringly honest perspective. If you’ve watched two or three dramas, you’re probably as tired of this character as he is of his life. It truly says a lot about Tucci’s performance that Ted Swenson was not only surprisingly watchable, but even occasionally sympathetic.
When Swenson — finally — encounters one promising student, it seems only natural for him to be drawn to her, a breath of fresh air in a pool of mediocrity. Played wonderfully by Addison Timlin (“Chronically Metropolitan”), Angela Argo is as bold on paper as she is quiet in real life. In what should have been sufficient warning for Ted, she is working on a novel about a high-school girl who seduces her teacher, and her eagerness for him to critique her work is matched by his own interest in reading more of it. Thus Levine begins their relationship convincingly, and we are able to understand Ted’s hesitance to cut himself off from the only source of intrigue in his life, even though he knows he should. However, Submission falters irreversibly when the so-called lines of their relationship are blurred, a scene in which things go too far seeming particularly awkward and implausible. Instead of being seduced by their affair, we are all too aware that we are watching the “tipping point” of a morality play.
The idea of morality is naturally present throughout the film, although it covers absolutely no new ground. In an attempt at modernizing the story, the hot topic of discussion between the professors is political correctness and the extent to which universities are required to oblige. Ted’s view — which he brazenly declares at a dinner party — is that the demands of students to feel safe in a classroom are ridiculous and lead to coddling. This is presented as controversial to state, with his colleagues looking on in shock at his ability to openly voice what they mostly also believe. Frankly, the idea that this opinion is little voiced is the only ridiculous aspect of it. The internet today is inundated with thousands of jabs at “safe space snowflakes” and hundreds of institutions across the US refuse to “buckle” to the requests of their own students. Even the concept of sexual harassment is ridiculed here when professors listen disinterestedly to the new guidelines being presented to them.
The idea that “PC culture” is too rampant is a pretty common one, so why are we being told this is some revolutionary thinking on Ted’s part? Moreover, why are we being subjected to an entire film whose primary politics is to state this? These questions are what bring me to ask my biggest question about Submission — my biggest reservation about this film: Does this story really need to be told? It purports to ask questions about “victim or victimizer” but in reality is unwilling to challenge its own views, and ultimately, it’s just another piece of media telling us that men in positions of power might not be entirely to blame for their actions. Ignoring the unfortunate timing of this, there’s also simply the fact that this is an unbelievably tired trope. Thousands, if not millions, of stories have been told over the history of time about women who seduce poor, unsuspecting men. It extends as far back as the legends of sirens in Greek mythology, if not further.
When Angela turns out to be yet another lying, manipulative woman who seduced Ted for her own personal gain, any previous element of interest falls apart. Firstly, the situation and consequences for Ted aren’t disastrous enough to warrant much concern — he already hates his job and is clearly dissatisfied with his marriage. Secondly, it’s a tragically missed opportunity to examine the situation in a genuinely new light. With such a relevant and topical subject as his foundation, it should have been easy for Levine to step outside of the box. Though shot beautifully and held above water by its cast, Submission is disappointing not only for its tired politics, but also for its unwillingness to do exactly what it claims to — ask questions.