Has there been another film, in recent years, with so much pining and so little emotion? We are told many times throughout director Wim Wender’s meditative romantic drama Submergence that the two lead characters – British secret agent James Moore (James McAvoy) and deep-sea diving bio-mathematician Danny (Alicia Vikander) – are in love, or at the very least in the throes of head-over-heels romance. So why don’t we feel it? Why no sparks, no chemistry, no passion? One wants to grab this stuffy, self-consciously ponderous film and shake it to life.
The veteran German director has helmed profoundly emotional dramas, including ’80s masterpieces Wings of Desire (about an angel deciding to love like a human, in a film that morphs from monochrome to colour) and Paris, Texas (about a fractured American family, told in the form of a road movie). But his adaptation of J.M. Ledgard’s novel – written by Erin Dignam – feels cold and detached, despite obvious attempts to convey warmth of heart and a hot, passionate relationship.
The opening shot has the camera travelling beneath the surface of steely blue ocean water, illuminated by white opening credits and rays of light from the sun above. This composition by cinematographer Benoît Debie reflects the film that follows, in that it seems to move without purpose. The frame settles on Vikander, walking on the ocean floor in a spiffy mechanical suit that looks borrowed from a science fiction movie. The dialogue matched to this moment will, to most audiences, sound like complicated gibberish, incorporating discussion of “pathways of energy production” and “oxidation” and “reduction of sulphur compounds.”
Wenders’ direction feels both overweening and undercooked.
From this early moment, Wenders separates his drama from common knowledge and shared experience. As if to reiterate the point, the director transitions to inside an art gallery where McAvoy admires a painting of a disease-riddled foot while surreptitiously discussing details of an upcoming mission. The story is told non-chronologically, a key chapter showing the couple meeting while on holiday in Normandy, France. Over dinner, Danny explains to James the “five layers of the ocean,” complicating the one core thing the audience may have appreciated on a purely aesthetic and non-academic level: the water. Soon the pair are hanging out naked next to a log fire.
They spend large chunks of the running time apart, splitting the film in two. While the professions of ‘biomathematician’ and ‘secret agent’ both seem like stretches (with neither Vikander nor McAvoy convincing in their roles) James’ duties with the British Secret Service especially raises plausability issues. He is captured and tortured by heavily armed Somalian jihadists, air-dropped from a swanky resort in the film’s pleasant early sequences to a dirty jail cell, eating a piece of bread strewn with maggots. These scenes feel borrowed from a different movie. The non-linear structure also creates a discombobulating effect – the audience uncertain how he got there, when he will leave, or whether he already has.
Debie’s images are handsome and crisp; bright but not distracting or showy. The cinematographer has a lovely way of basking in blues and aquas, though his images can’t avoid Wenders’ direction, which feels both overweening and undercooked. The idea that the characters are submerged in each other – drowning in their thoughts and feelings – is carefully calculated but laboured and cliche. There is a genuine desire to see the characters unite, if only so Submergence can establish cohesion. The film’s lasting impression is bittersweet: just as the characters finally begin to resonate, and the audience finally begins to feel something for their journey, the closing credits roll.
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