Novelist Francine Prose Answers #MeToo Criticism Of Stanley Tucci Film 'Submission'

Anyone who’s been reading the news could see trouble brewing for the new film Submission. In the indie film, directed by Richard Levine, Stanley Tucci plays a hapless literature professor, Swenson, who teaches a writing workshop. Swenson is a novelist whose career is cooling. As a distraction, he begins reading the work of a female student, Angela (Addison Timlin)—an erotic romance about a teacher and student. Angela fancies herself superior to Swenson’s other students; she is not lacking in confidence, unlike Swenson, a man with a loser academic life and a demanding agent. He’s bored by his lovely wife (Kyra Sedgwick) and intrigued with the macho professor that Angela has created.

And thus, within the first thirty minutes of the film, the chess pieces are in place for the sexual power struggle that evolves.

Submission is an adaptation of the Francine Prose novel Blue Angel, published in 2000. Prose admits that her story looks very different in a post-Weinstein world. “If Swenson was considering having an affair with a student now, he wouldn’t be able to get Weinstein out of his head,” said Prose. "It’s not the same situation, of course, but men are much more careful now.

"It wasn’t as if sexual harassment or professors having affairs with students were non-issues" in 2002,” she added, “but they didn’t occupy the same prominent space in our cultural consciousness yet.”

In the film, which in some scenes plays like a B-movie horror, Angela takes Swenson’s apparent interest in her writing as permission to ask favors of him, and he agrees, presumably because he’s bored. Before Swenson realizes what’s happening, he’s driving Angela to another town to pick up a new computer, laughing when she jokes about sex, and following her upstairs to her dorm room simply because she invited him. It’s all a viewer can do to not yell at the screen, “Run Away!”

tucci sedgwick Swenson (Stanley Tucci) and his wife (Kyra Sedgwick) attend a party for academics, where he's asked uncomfortable questions about his in-progress novel. Great Point Media

Prose wrote her novel before #MeToo—before a story about a young girl who manipulates an older man might be criticized for victim blaming, which can make Submission seem a little tone deaf. But Prose's intention was simply to write an offbeat and unhealthy “love story” between two “unconscious” characters. In Blue Angel, Angela has no sense of her own power over Swenson, a sad, middle-aged man. And Swenson certainly doesn’t appreciate the ramifications of having sex with his student in her dorm room.

“It’s not a rape story, or an assault story, and it’s not even a pure harassment story,” said Prose. “I set out to write about obsession, and once I realized I was setting it on a college campus, I thought, ‘Uh oh, this is where the university gets involved.’”

submission-movie-stanley-tucci Stanley Tucci and Addison Timlin in 'Submission'. Great Point Media

Prose does not consider Swenson, likably played by Tucci, as a classic predator. “He’s not someone who hates women,” she said “You read horrible stories about Weinstein and Matt Lauer, and it’s pretty clear that they are misogynists getting off on power, on trying to humiliate people. What they do is only partly about sex, and it’s certainly not about affection.”

Swenson, on the other hand, cares about Angela and wants to engage with her because of the way she makes him feel. “He’s more enamored with her youth and talent than who she actually is, but that’s just part of the story,” said Prose.

She believes her story, and the film, can work as an exploration of unethical sexual relationships that don’t involve assault, but are certainly inadvisable—a gray area waiting to ensnare people who aren’t paying attention. “Working with a young person’s writing can be an intimate and vulnerable process, and the idea of transference wasn’t as much of a conversation among creative writing professors in 2000 as it was with psychoanalysts.”

francine prose Francine Prose, author of the 2000 novel 'Blue Angel,' on which 'Submission' is based. Stephanie Berger

The film allows Angela a little more agency than it does Swenson. Once he consents to sex, she has him hooked, and the threat of outing him is implicit in the requests she makes after that first encounter. She wants her writing shown to his agent; she wants the freedom to insult her fellow students. And like an idiot, Swenson agrees. The film's tension: Can he wiggle out of the bad situation he allowed Angela to create? 

Submission is uncomfortable to watch. It's also impossible to divorce it from the zeitgeist. When Prose and her son attended a screening, the audience around them was “ornery,” which surprised her. “I know it’s not following the standard narrative of the moment, but that’s why I’m glad the film is coming out now. It’s about two individuals with varying degrees of influence, and I think it exists somewhere toward the middle of a spectrum between innocence and horror.”

Submission is in theaters now.

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