Submission movie review: a hot take on gender power dynamics from opposite-world

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Submission red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

In the moment of #MeToo and #TimesUp, this tale of the relationship between an older male professor and his young female student is howlingly out of step and outrageously tone deaf. And that’s on top of its tedious clichés.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love Stanley Tucci
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Movies can take years to make, so it’s impossible to know into what sort of cultural zeitgeist the finished project will ultimately be released. But a special booby prize must go to Submission for getting it so opposite-world, upside-down wrong. I mean, sure, this film would have been offensive when it debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival last June, but since then we’ve had Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, “Cat Person,” the bad date Aziz Ansari didn’t realize he was party to, and #TimesUp… and Submission is so howlingly out of step with the much-needed new conversations we’re having about sexual harassment and power dynamics, so outrageously tone deaf about the essential new awareness that has sprung up around the different ways in which men and women see sexual interactions. Its take is so just plain terrible that, you know, it might have been better to simply not release the film at all.

“Whatever you may have heard, know this: If you submit erotic fan fiction about me as your final project, you won’t get higher than an A-. That’s just my policy.”
“Whatever you may have heard, know this: If you submit erotic fan fiction about me as your final project, you won’t get higher than an A-. That’s just my policy.”

Bad enough that Submission’s protagonist, Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci [Beauty and the Beast, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2]; why, Tucci, why?!), is a cliché of the most tedious sort, one so overrepresented onscreen and in pop culture (and literary fiction) that if we never saw another one we’d still be bogged down with too many. Ted is the author of one middling successful novel, and has been struggling for more than a decade to write a second. In the meantime, he has been working as a creative-writing professor at a small fourth-rate Vermont college, where the students, even the ones who want to be writers, barely even read. (Wait. Do writers really get professorships and tenure on the basis of a single novel? Maybe white men do…) Ted drinks too much, is “dying of boredom and angst,” decries his fellow faculty as “spineless idiots,” and is generally an overprivileged, overcoddled toddler… which is exactly what he deems today’s kids are, what with their neuroses and their safe spaces and their anti-sexual-harassment codes, which Ted also scoffs at.

A cliché of a character cries out that she and everyone around her are clichés. If only there were some hint of satire in this.

Naturally, Ted has an incredibly supportive and saintly wife, Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick: The Edge of Seventeen, Man on a Ledge), who tolerates his moping and his drinking. Later, she will cry out that they are such clichés. If only there were some hint of satire in any of this. But there isn’t.

And then! Poor Ted, poor suffering Ted, realizes that one of his students, Angela Argo (Addison Timlin: The Town That Dreaded Sundown, That Awkward Moment), can actually write. (This is debatable.) She has asked him to read her novel-in-progress, and he agrees, because she flatters him, insisting that his novel — his one novel — is her favorite book ever, is a masterpiece, saved her life, etc. The chapters she feeds him one at a time tell the story of a clear stand-in for Angela herself, a teenage girl who has an affair with a much older male high-school teacher. Her prose is very steamy and erotic — writer-director Richard Levine dramatizes it, of course — and it’s so obviously constructed to manipulate Ted that it’s laughable… but he doesn’t seem to see it. He doesn’t seem to realize anything that is happening, right up until the moment when–

“Ah, you think you can fool me with this ‘innocent little creature huddling on the stoop in the cold act,’ eh? Well, it’s working.”
“Ah, you think you can fool me with this ‘innocent little creature huddling on the stoop in the cold act,’ eh? Well, it’s working.”

Well. I won’t spoil. Suffice to say that Angela is exactly the sort of conniving schemer we took her for from the moment we met her — she’s yet another a cliché of the most tedious sort — and Ted is precisely the naive sap it’s thoroughly impossible to buy him as. Submission, based on the 2000 novel Blue Angel by Francine Prose, would have us believe that it’s unsuspecting men who are victimized by much younger women under their authority, not the other way around, and that sexy young women are ruthless while older, worldly wise men are hapless. Heck, maybe men should follow that hideous “Mike Pence rule” about never being alone with women who aren’t their wives, because a bitch will take a man for whatever she can, however she can… and worse, she will fool everyone else into thinking she’s the victim.

If a men’s-rights activist’s Twitter feed could spring to life, it might look like Submission. Sexual harassment isn’t real: it’s a fantasy invented by feminists… like the appalling caricature of a gender-studies professor played Jessica Hecht [Anesthesia, The Sisterhood of Night], who does her best with a thankless role. (Janeane Garofalo [The American Side, Ratatouille] plays another professor. The waste of her presence feels like a fuck-you to feminism and progressivism, too.) “Sexual harassment” is a weapon wielded by women to hurt men. Pitiable, innocent men who don’t deserve to be treated so shabbily.

#TimesUp on this crap.

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Wed, Mar 14, 2018 3:37pm

Even if we weren’t in a political environment that had MeToo, Weistein, etc, this conceit (poor college professor victimized by mean female student) makes my eyes roll so hard they explode out the side of my head. Anyone who has been through higher education understands the power dynamics, and they are 100% in the “Professor manipulates and flexes” genre. Some students may benefit from that, but only at the whim of the Professor (and, from what I see, it’s rarely the female students who actually benefit)

Thu, Mar 15, 2018 8:43am

I like the timing. Maybe, just maybe, more reviewers will perceive the premise’s stupidity than they otherwise would have.

Thu, Mar 15, 2018 11:49am

I suppose this could have started as a refreshing change from the even bigger cliché of “failing middle-aged male writer meets cute young woman, much sex ensues, he gets his inspiration back” (very often written by middle-aged male writers, oddly enough). But I gather that Prose’s novel is meant to be a satire of the political correctness culture, which didn’t work well in 2000 and looks even more dated now.

reply to  RogerBW
Mon, Mar 19, 2018 7:11pm

The refreshing change of pace for this was in 2002’s Insomnia where the failing(?) middle-aged writer meets the young woman who idolizes him and…

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  CB
Tue, Mar 20, 2018 9:48pm

That is NOT a “refreshing change of pace.”

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Wed, Mar 21, 2018 7:21am

Sorry… I meant, honest… “what really happens, all too often”… it’s not “refreshing” that this is so in the least.

Dale Snow
Dale Snow
Thu, Mar 15, 2018 11:53am

Speaking as an actual college professor, who ten years ago was also the “sexual harassment liaison” or contact person for those with complaints on our campus, I can confidently say that I never encountered a situation even remotely similar to this one. However, the fear of the predatory female has ancient roots — remember how hard it was for Odysseus to resist the Sirens? Evidently this myth has just been updated, right down the fear of her seductive words.

reply to  Dale Snow
Thu, Mar 15, 2018 12:39pm

Some other films on this theme in the last few years…

A Kind of Murder
Careful What You Wish For
Message From a Mistress

Those poor menz, they just can’t help it.

reply to  Dale Snow
Mon, Mar 19, 2018 7:17pm

It’s funny I was recently reading about how in the original it was the promise of knowledge/wisdom that made the sirens seductive, rather than their beauty or sexuality, and it was more modern translations which added the sex element in.

Thu, Mar 15, 2018 2:00pm

On a tangential note: based on these photos, I think we now know who would play the lead when they get around to making the Stephen Colbert biopic.

Fri, Mar 16, 2018 2:28am

Nah a more realistic movie would be about a feminist who does nothing but complain about white cis males all day long at her accounting job and the glass ceiling that keeps her from high success and not her constant blogging and insults toward coworkersXD

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Hahahahaha
Fri, Mar 16, 2018 7:20pm

That is remarkably specific. Show us on the doll where the lady hurt you.

Laurel Brett
Laurel Brett
Mon, Jul 09, 2018 6:59am

I found this movie so painful I had to sing to myself because my husband did not want to mute it. Besides the awful politics, as our host(less) perfectly analyzes, the stupidity here is laughable. First, the professor knows better. Second, doesn’t anyone suspect a woman with a tape recorder? Third, her material should make him suspect her ploy. Fourth, all they need to do is get the publisher to say the professor did try to push her work etc. etc. etc. And, what the hell? The back to the evil coed and the innocent Professor. Revolting. I did have male professors attempt to ruin my academic career (long story.) No repercussions for them. Period. What is this world when everyone goes to bat for the woman? No colleges I know. Blech.