Film Review – Submergence
Melodrama, when done well, draws our empathies so effectively that seeing the lives of characters play out is as suspenseful as an action film. Of all the genres in cinema, melodrama – often dealing with the ups and downs of romance – is so closely tied to our own experiences that we can easily relate to what we see on screen. Most of us have fallen in love, have had our hearts broken, or have been in circumstances that pull us away from those we care about. Some filmmakers have become experts at telling these kinds of stories: Wong Kar-Wai, Pedro Almodovar, and Todd Haynes are a few. And of course there’s Douglas Sirk, whose work in the 1950s helped develop how we view the genre today. At its best, melodrama captures the trials and tribulations of every day life at an emotional high.
But at its worst, melodrama can be manipulative, cloying, and artificial. There’s nothing worse than seeing a melodrama constructed with false pretenses – where the characters are thinly written, the plot is done with little ingenuity, and the resolution is ham-fisted or fabricated. It’s those instances that have given melodramas a bad reputation. I’m afraid that Wim Wenders’ latest film, Submergence (2017) falls much too close to this latter example. Although headed by two talented (and let’s face it, good looking) stars, the story never gets past first gear. It’s built strictly on the chemistry of the two leads but nothing else. This is a romance that’s about as exciting as doing your taxes.
We start off with your basic “two ships crossing in the night” scenario. James (James McAvoy) and Dani (Alicia Vikander) meet while on holiday at a French beach resort. Right away, sparks start to fly. They have lunch, stroll along the beach and around the resort – talking about the things people talk about when love is in the air. Soon enough, the two skip the pleasantries and engage in more carnal activities.
McAvoy and Vikander look good on screen, and the attraction their characters share feels authentic. The strongest sequences are when they are simply talking, sharing their ideas and beliefs. Even when they don’t agree on a certain topic, they’re mature enough to not let that stand in the way of their blossoming connection. Yes, McAvoy and Vikander are easy on the eyes, but Wenders (who directs Erin Dignam’s screenplay, based on J.M. Ledgard’s novel) builds their relationship on an intellectual level instead of just a physical one.
But like most cinematic love stories, James and Dani’s holiday fling is short lived. Dani is a scientist who studies the mysteries of the ocean (but don’t call her an “oceanographer”). Her latest assignment involves her diving in a submersible all the way down to the ocean floor in the Greenland Sea. In the meantime, James works for a counterterrorism agency, and has to travel to East Africa in an attempt to take down jihadist fighters. Unfortunately for him, he gets captured by the jihadists, and has to suffer tremendous physical torture with nothing but the memory of Dani to keep him going.
And there you have it. The title of Submergence acts as a loose metaphor for what James and Dani go through: she has to literally “submerge” into the ocean as he “submerges” himself deeper into enemy territory. For a story that didn’t have much going for it while James and Dani were together, it really starts to fall apart once they are separated. The two do nothing else of consequence except reminisce about each other. The strongest bit of narrative tension is when Dani checks her cell phone to see if James has texted her. Even though James is a prisoner of a terrorist organization, the suspense feels strangely subdued. The story just rambles along with very little keeping us invested. James and Dani’s romance was fine, but was it such an earth shattering experience that it consumes their every waking moment?
The most disappointing thing about Submergence is that Wim Wenders is a director capable of far better than this. His Paris, Texas (1984) is one of the great emotional experiences of my adult life, with a story full of longing, passion, regret, and love. With Submergence, Wenders appears to be operating on autopilot. His narrative goes through the motions and never reaches an apex. His oddest directorial choices were in the camera placement. Benoit Debie’s framing and Toni Froschhammer’s editing has sight lines going all over the place. Sometimes the camera will have your usual, over shoulder shot of a character talking, but then we’ll cut to a shot where they’re looking directly into the camera, as though the camera were the other person. I don’t know if this was meant to get a deeper look into a James and Dani’s psyche, but the random shifts of where characters were looking in relation to the camera became distracting.
Submergence had such talent that it’s a shame the end product left no resonance. It just kind of presents itself and then disappears like a vapor. When melodramas work, they stick in our minds and stay there. But with this, it had such little to offer that I’m already starting to forget it.