The Terrible Timing for ‘Submission’

The Denver Film Festival’s Centerpiece was a major letdown

At the 40th Denver Film Festival, the Centerpiece film was “Submission.” It was adapted from the bestselling novel “Blue Angel” by Francine Prose, which was a biting satire about the sexual politics that occur within a microcosm. It’s important to remember that it was adapted from the novel, because the novel was written 17 years ago, at a time when the term “political correctness” was starting to receive backlash and, well, we all know how it’s regarded today.

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Photo courtesy of Denver Film Society

At the center of the film is Ted Swenson, played by Stanley Tucci in a wig, who was once a successful novelist and is now teaching a creative writing course at a small liberal arts college in New England. He’s currently not writing his second novel, meaning he’s experiencing severe, prolonged “writer’s block.” We follow Ted through his monotonous life of not writing while he suffers through class after class of untalented and uninteresting young writers, until one day he perks up when he hears the story written by Angela Argo. Suddenly, he’s excited about the writing process again.

Addison Timlin plays Angela and gives the character surprising depth. She seems indifferent to her writing until Swenson starts to challenge her to develop the story more, which is a surprise to her peers since he rarely offers such praise. The story itself is trite – about a high schooler with a crush on a much-older teacher– but it certainly catches Ted’s attention. He’s instantly drawn into the story and becomes more involved as Angela starts to visit his office. He’s unwittingly thrust into a seamy story of his own.

Kyra Sedgwick stars as Ted’s wife, Sherrie, and she is by far the best thing about the movie. Her wit and intelligence are on full display, and her portrayal of the betrayal she feels when she finds out that Ted had an affair with a student is spot on. Her reaction is the exact one you’d expect from a wife who thought her marriage was happy.

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Kyra Sedgwick on the red carpet before the ‘Submission’ presentation

Unfortunately, the audience doesn’t get to share in the resentment. Tucci is just too likable. What should amount to pity for the slightly pathetic character turns into compassion, which is what makes the entire movie so infuriating. You develop little sympathy for Angela, whose femme fatale persona is so obvious with her punk-like clothing and dark makeup. It’s fairly clear that she’s trying to seduce him throughout the movie and he just seems like an unwitting participant in the drama that’s unfolding. When he goes before a small council of peers determining whether he had sexually harassed Angela, you actually feel bad for him.

Of course, that’s exactly what Prose intended when she wrote “Blue Angel.” She wanted to point out the nuances of gender politics and the ridiculousness of the sexual harassment tribunals at small liberal-arts colleges, which she witnessed first-hand in the early ’90s. But it was easy for her to be disgusted by the politics involved in the sexual harassment case she watched – she was a character witness for the accused. Her moral outrage stemmed not from the fact that he did actually sexually harass a student, but from how the university focused on language and persecuted “bad behavior.”

While there are certainly better ways for universities and other institutions to handle the complex issue of sexual harassment, is it necessary to drudge up the tired femme fatale trope that only creates a means to blame the victim? It’s not enough that she’s dressed in the classic black throughout the movie, but she was suddenly transformed into the innocent lamb during the trial. As soon as Ted sees her, he knows he’s the victim of her plan and he played right into her hands.

Does this happen? Absolutely, no one’s disputing that, but what is so frustrating is that this is the common and acceptable defense by sexual harassers, predators, and assaulters. Many a public figure has been exonerated for his deplorable actions because the victim is obviously the one to blame. She shouldn’t have dressed that way; she was flirting with him earlier; she’s promiscuous, so she would never say no; she’s a liar. Many victims don’t come forward because of the additional trauma that comes from being put under the microscope or being shunned by their community.

But writer and director Richard Levine doesn’t have to worry about that. He’s clearly not worried about the current political climate surrounding our current president, which he had to know about going into production. It seems even more ill-timed now that the film industry and political institutions are finally taking sexual assault allegations seriously.

It’s truly too bad that Tucci’s and Sedgwick’s performances are overshadowed by the insensitive and chauvinistic treatment of the subject matter, but at least I wasn’t alone in my distaste. Many in the theater looked around, dumbfounded by what just took place. The film was actually enjoyable until the end. But I have to ask: how could this film be included with the likes of “Home Truth,” “Beauty and the Dogs,” and Sedgwick’s own “Story of a Girl?”

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Denver Film Festival Executive Director Andrew Rodgers presenting ‘Submission’