No one could accuse Wim Wenders of inconsistency. He’s been making feature films for 45 years, and his mode of telling a story has rarely fluctuated, going back to the New German Cinema road rambles of the ’70s to “Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire” to the ’90s neo-utopian journeys (“Until the End of the World,” etc.) right up to “Submergence,” which premiered this week at the Toronto Film Festival. Through it all, Wenders has never let go of the languid reflective pacing, the morosely droopy scenes that dither and digress, the long-and-winding structure that theoretically holds a movie together but is too abstract to lend it a real shape.
“Submergence” is a telling example of that style, because it’s the most conventional drama Wenders has made in years: an art-house weeper starring James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander. Yet even two glamorous and well-matched stars of the moment can’t do much to undermine the Wenders meander. The film has a rapturous score (by Fernando Velázquez) that sounds like ’60s James Bond underwater music by way of Gustav Mahler, and it’s one of those love-stories-that-takes-on-an-important-global-issue — in this case, not climate change (you can let out a sigh of relief) but Islamic terrorism (okay, time to suck in another breath).
McAvoy plays James, an MI6 agent who poses as a water engineer to infiltrate an Al-Qaeda enclave in Somalia. Vikander is Danielle, a bio-mathematician who’s in the midst of exploring life beneath the sea at its deepest, darkest levels. The two meet on holiday at a beachside hotel in Normandy and fall into a rapport that’s so tenderly consuming it’s…oceanic. Or, at least, they talk about the ocean a lot.
The film’s title, in case you hadn’t guessed, is one of those multi-symbolic sensual metaphors. James and Danielle are submerged in love. Danielle is working up to the moment when she’ll sit inside a 30-foot-long yellow submersible and let herself be submerged in the murky deep. And James, despite his undercover alter ego, gets arrested at the Al-Qaeda compound he’s out to infiltrate and tossed into a dank gross prison, where terrorists in red head scarves beat the hell out of him and attempt to coerce, and even brainwash, him into making a video statement that supports their cause. They never do succeed in flipping him, but he’s a Western spy who gets dunked in the thinking of radical Islam. That’s another kind of submergence.
Wenders, as always, has his moments, especially in the first half, when we bask in the sight of James and Danielle at the seaside, exchanging deep thoughts between adoring glances. Looking into the camera, across the table from James, Danielle delineates for him, in scientific (but really symbolic!) detail, the five levels of the ocean, a descriptive descent that Vikander makes sound like the most tantalizing of mysteries. At another point they argue about terrorism, and James reveals the sources of his own conviction. He’s trying to end the wave of terrorist bombings in Europe, but there’s one thing that he thinks is “beautiful” about the terrorists: their faith. That’s a provocative thought, though it still sounds less like the statement of an MI6 agent than something you’d expect to hear Wim Wenders say at a dinner party.
Wenders draws together the disparate elements of the film — romance, underwater adventure, prison thriller — by fusing them poetically, beneath the umbrella of that title. Fundamentally, though, he has made a love story about two people whose missions pry them apart, even though they want to be together. So they basically spend the second half of the movie in separate movies.
That may say something about the upheavals of our time, and the way that those cataclysms create distance between people. But it doesn’t exactly turn “Submergence” into “Casablanca.” There are moments when the film has the ability to absorb us, however fleetingly: James walking into the surf right before he thinks he’s going to get shot, then having a breakdown/catharsis; Danielle finally seeing what lies beneath — a rapt vision of the inky deep, though you wish, after all that meaningful buildup, that Wenders lingered more on the undersea footage.
“Submergence,” on paper at least, has marketable elements, notably its marquee actors, but in reality it’s too listless and downbeat to find much of an audience. Wenders, of course, will be fine. He’ll go on making his movies, and maybe he’ll go out of the box once again to startle us the way he did with the ravishing dance documentary “Pina.” Yet it’s worth noting that back in the ’70s, when the Wenders style evolved, it emerged out of the lethargic daze of the time. It was a style built on the searching hesitation and doubt that was the hangover of the 1960s. But it’s a style that no longer connects to the rhythm of the era he’s working in. Now it’s Wenders’ filmmaking that seems submerged.