Arriving amid a long-overdue reckoning in the realm of sexual politics, the tart, rueful and keenly observed “Submission” might be viewed as a litmus test. The movie traces an intimate relationship between a male college professor and female undergraduate from the point of view of the frustrated middle-aged man. That alone will lead some potential viewers to recoil or dismiss it as wrongheaded. Their loss.
Writer-director Richard Levine has faithfully adapted “Blue Angel,” Francine Prose’s novel of campus life and amour fou, itself a riff on the tragicomic Marlene Dietrich film of the same name. Occupying the tantalizing gray area between innocence and guilt, “Submission” is about writerly ambition and the insularities of academia as much as it’s about a calamitous attraction.
The middle-aged man, Ted Swenson, is played to perfection by Stanley Tucci. Everything about him, from his precisely knotted scarf to his mordant quips, signals that he considers himself a superior being caught in inferior circumstances. What was meant to be a brief teaching stint in Vermont has turned into a decade-long purgatory between his well-received first novel and his still-unwritten second book.
A gifted writer, Angela (Addison Timlin), emerges among his otherwise uninspiring students and insists, in a faux-fumbling way, that he take notice. Their flirtation is propelled by the erotic charge of her work, and a willfully blind Ted walks headlong into the trap being laid for him.
Honoring the primacy of language for his characters, Levine deftly reveals the ways they wield it to seduce, attack, manipulate, repress and, occasionally, to communicate.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Monica Film Center, Santa Monica