★★★ / ★★★★
Those expecting a typical romance in which a potential couple meet, court, and live happily ever after are in for a big disappointment because, although beautifully photographed, Wim Wenders’ “Submergence” is more adult-oriented than fantasy-leaning escapism. Rather than focusing on plot, it is interested in showing challenging circumstances, building a perfect mood to capture longing and loneliness, presenting the details of one’s work, and underlining the distance between lovers than it is about showing its subjects physically interacting to make the viewers swoon. Its vision is without compromise and I respect that.
Notice the atypical technique in which succeeding scenes are presented. It is fluid, like water, an important symbol in the picture, almost as though we are seeing the images through a flow of consciousness or deeply personal, somewhat guarded memories. It is important, I think, that it is presented in this manner so that audiences get an impression of the feelings of incompleteness that the two lovers undergo when they are separated. Because of their occupations, there is no two-way letter-writing or texting involved. And in addition to the subjects not knowing each other for very long before they must separate, there is only uncertainty. Here is a film in which we grow increasingly unsure whether the protagonists would see each other again—a rarity in the romance sub-genre.
Danielle and James, a bio-mathematician preparing for a deep-sea dive and a British spy posing as a water engineer, are played by Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy, respectively. They share solid chemistry as their characters meet in a stunning seaside hotel in Normandy. As intuitive performers, closely observe their body languages as requisite lines are uttered with subtlety and passion. Because by also focusing on the unsaid, it provides us a more complete picture of what these characters are about and what they hope to achieve. It is critical that we feel or understand Danielle and James’ love for what they do, their personal and professional missions, so that we buy into the idea of why they ultimately choose to put themselves in potentially dangerous situations.
Yes, the dialogue offers some scientific jargon, which may be a challenge to sit through for some, but I think the focus ought to be on the intention behind these words. The dialogue is written so beautifully that at times, for example, Danielle may choose to use opaque words in order to hide her feelings of awkwardness with a man she just met. But what makes James interesting, for instance, is that he is a great listener, a skill that is required in his line of work, and so he is able to pierce through the fog and reach her. Still, however, she offers surprises in store. Their meeting is only the setup for the plot but it is so strong, it could have been an entire picture on its own.
Beauty and brutality collide when Danielle and James follow their respective paths. Hydrothermal vents in the deep Atlantic Ocean look like alien worlds while jihadists treat precious human lives as insects to be crushed at the slightest sign of annoyance. Interiors of ships, particularly of a laboratory filled with curious equipments, are polished and elegant while interiors of war-ravaged buildings, particularly the unsanitary clinic, highlight the fears and overall unhappiness—torment—of a community. We are meant to wonder whether Danielle and James’ contrasting worlds are so different, they might end up getting sucked into them, extinguishing every chance of getting back together. But what’s brilliant, I think, is the picture does not simply rely on a romantic reunion.