Like the Francine Prose novel upon which it’s based, Submission is more of an updated version than a remake of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. In case viewers can’t make that connection themselves, writer-director Richard Levine conspicuously inserts a clip of the 1930 Weimer classic into his film, explicitly linking the two works. In Sternberg’s film, the protagonist played by Emil Jannings loses his job and mind over his illicit infatuation with Marlene Dietrich’s showgirl, whereas in Submission the consequences of married professor Ted Swenson’s (Stanley Tucci) affair with one of his students, Angela (Addison Timlin), are far less consequential. And the comparative insignificance of Ted’s actions reflects not only this film’s tepid outlook, but also the relatively low stakes of the story’s conflicts.
Despite its overt debt to The Blue Angel, Submission plays more like secondhand Philip Roth or David Mamet, whose literary works (and the films they inspired) have mined similar territory with far more unsettling and poignant results. The plot itself is almost identical to the first half of Todd Solondz’s Storytelling, though less audaciously mounted. Submission is generally well observed, albeit in a clichéd kind of way, as if its characters and their mannerisms have been taken from better films on the same subject. Throughout, Levine hints at making daring gestures before ultimately hedging his bets and settling on something far more prosaic and predictable. This gives the film an offputtingly ambivalent quality, as one can sense that it ultimately lacks the courage to stand by its underlying convictions.
This neutered quality is palpable in a scene at a faculty dinner, where most of the professors rail against the general mediocrity of their mollycoddled students. Ted, as the dashing, anti-PC rebel, goes further than the others, saying what the rest think while nevertheless earning their silent censure for voicing such thoughts aloud. Here, the film starts to cautiously reveal its underlying message, about the thought control progressively creeping into American universities and its adverse effect on intellectual freedom in academia. This message about academia’s capitulation to political correctness is reinforced in the character of Angela, who seduces Ted for the sole purpose of getting him to give her manuscript to his publisher. When that fails, she resorts to blackmail, accusing him of sexual harassment.
This tentative questioning of the sometimes unscrupulous methods and deleterious consequences of political correctness is further undermined by Ted’s insipid character and general indifference to his fate. Though the professor’s critique of his students’ subpar abilities are accurate and his condemnation of Angela’s duplicity is justified, the film also shows him to be an apathetic teacher and lousy husband. Furthermore, the fallout from Angela’s ruthless scheming isn’t particularly dire, as Ted seems little invested in his job and marriage anyway. The final scene even shows the whole ordeal to be a kind of blessing in disguise. The plot thus removes any possible sense of tragedy or even real misfortune from the film, as if the filmmakers themselves were indifferent to the fate of their characters.