“So if I tell you something, do you promise not to be mad at me no matter what?” In Submission, it’s not a 5-year-old who says this but a middle-aged man with about the same level of maturity. The professor has taken his wife to a fancy restaurant to confess that he’s slept with one of his students—not because he feels guilty, but because it’s likely he’ll lose his job. She’s charging him with sexual harassment, but the accusation is baseless because she seduced him. So we’re cool, right?
Addison Timlin (Angela Argo) is the #MeToo movement’s worse nightmare: A young woman who manipulates a man so she can tear him down should the need arise, lying that their tryst was born not of mutual consent but misconduct. And Angela finds reason to strike soon enough. Professor Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) has been reading her erotic prose after hours and encouraging her, so she suggests that he give his editor a few chapters. What, the editor is busy and uninterested in reading some kid’s book? Sexual harassment!
Written and directed by Richard Levine, Submission is based on the Francine Prose novel Blue Angel, which itself is based on the 1930 Marlene Dietrich film about a professor who comes undone after falling for a nightclub singer. It can’t be said that the same happens to Tucci’s Swenson: From his finding out that the charge has been filed to his informal hearing and beyond, Ted approaches the situation with a smirk, at times arguing his case but mostly looking amused by it all. Angela doesn’t seem all that traumatized, either. At the hearing, she smilingly accepts her parents’ petting and comes forward to testify with lips slightly upturned. It’s not even an evil, I-got-you grin. She may as well be giving a presentation in front of a class.
It’s this lack of seriousness that keeps Submission from ever feeling newsworthy or even worthwhile as a film. Angela’s moves come too easily; she goes from Will you read my novel? to You intimidated me until I had sex with you without breaking a sweat. We don’t see the act she might have put on when leveling this accusation, just Ted’s reaction to hearing the recording she made on a clunky ’90s tape recorder. (One word: pantomime.) In fact, the whole pas de deux is simply Levine ticking off some boxes: approach (check), engagement (check), rift (check), accusation (check). Despite the smarminess that Tucci oozes, it never feels organic.
Any dramatic tension that is built vanishes at the end, with Levine again taking a ludicrous shortcut. Throughout, this charge, Angela’s lie, and Ted’s complicitness are treated as little more than a student contesting her grades. And for this, Submission gets an F.
Submission opens Friday at West End Cinema.