Films about mid-life crisis and lusty professors, who get themselves into a world of trouble, hold a venerable place in cinematic history. Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 masterpiece, The Blue Angel, is a case in point. That film inspired the 2006 novel of the same title that Submission is based on.
Both movies share a similar plot of respected educators becoming involved in a forbidden relationship, and ultimately paying the price for it. The Blue Angel’s professor gets into a pickle with a nightclub chanteuse. In Submission, Professor Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) falls for a precocious student in his fiction writing class.
Similar to The Blue Angel’s Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), Swenson is a rather pompous and narcissistic educator. Married and tenured, he finds himself in a comfortable rut. Unable to complete his novel, he becomes fixated on an outspoken, talented student, Angela (Addison Timlin), who clearly has eyes for him.
“Unable to complete his novel, he becomes fixated on an outspoken, talented student…”
Although all of the pieces don’t exactly fit together, Submission takes a darkly and sometimes hilarious look at inappropriate behavior, who the aggressor is in such situations, and how institutions handle those transgressions.
Tucci inhabits the bespectacled professor with ease, showing his blindness to some rather large gaps in his sense of ethics. At one point, Swenson shoots his mouth off at a faculty cocktail party, and we begin to see he’s drunk, not only on booze but also on the fantasy world he’s begun conjuring for himself. When the topic of his in-progress novel comes up, he makes a pronouncement that’s stupidly daring and hard to fathom. I can’t say more about it without giving too much away. In retrospect, This reveal seems like one of the film’s rare wrong turns. It doesn’t amount to much, but it did make me wonder whether Swenson was headed into much darker territory.
In the end, when things go wrong, the noose around the delusional professor’s neck fits a little too perfectly to be believed. Nevertheless, Tucci turns in his usual exceptional performance. Timlin, as Angela, plays a credible femme fatale who convincingly switches character at will.
“…Timlin…plays a credible femme fatale who convincingly switches character at will.”
Submission’s arrival on the scene, in our current age of #metoo, could hardly be more timely. As a social statement, this is territory explored in such diverse vehicles as von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (amply referenced in Submission) to Showtime’s Californication. Once we get the idea of what direction the story is headed, however, there are enough nuances to the plot. Also, the direction is cagey enough to keep us interested in what might otherwise seem all too familiar.
Submission is well acted, finely paced and craftily photographed, but provides no real revelations that will add to the discussion about campus politics or sexual harassment. Which is OK — thankfully, it’s not a film that wants to teach us a lesson.
We do come away feeling that institutions that are charged with policing these kinds of transgressions are as unyielding and dogmatic as the Puritans before them. But, it’s a complex matter worthy of multiple screen adaptations. In films, at least, there seems to be an ample supply of unsuspecting dupes waiting their turn to wade into some decidedly hot water.
Submission (2018) Directed by Richard Levine, written by Richard Levine (screenplay), Francine Prose (novel), starring Stanley Tucci, Addison Timlin, Kyra Sedgwick.
6.5 out of 10