It may sound like a weird hybrid of genres but fans of Wim Wenders will immediately recognise his idiosyncratic filmmaking style. The languid pace, the digressive and complex structure, the exquisite art-house cinematography: all the hallmarks of a Wenders film are present. Yet despite the genre-confusion, Submergence feels like the most accessible, or even conventional film Wenders has made in many years.
James More (James McAvoy) is an MI6 agent specialising in Al-Qaeda’s presence in Africa and Danielle Flinders (Alicia Vikander) is a bio-mathematician whose area of research is the life inhabiting the deepest levels of the ocean.
These two dedicated professionals meet while taking a few days off at a luxurious seaside mansion in Normandy as both prepare for their upcoming missions. James is about to leave on an undercover assignment to infiltrate an Al-Qaeda cell in Somalia and Danielle is set to embark on a deep-sea mission in a tiny submersible to investigate sea-floor hydrothermal vents.
The two fall in love and Wenders is in his element: two gorgeous people launching into a passionate relationship in a stunning location. Even if you are made of stone, this part of the film is visually exquisite, the Fernando Velázquez score is rapturous and the script skilfully conveys the intelligence of the characters. They are submerged in love, but of course Wenders can’t let that be the extent of the ‘submergence’ metaphor.
James and Danielle regretfully tear themselves away from each other to head off on their respective missions. James is captured, beaten and imprisoned in an Al-Qaeda compound as they try to turn him (submerged in the mind-set of radical Islam?) while Danielle’s submergence is far more literal as she dives in her submersible into the darkest, deepest part of the ocean.
This is poetic cinema, and while the plot contains elements of political thriller and adventure, it holds true to Wenders’ characteristic style, resisting the pacing and spectacle of more traditional examples of these genres.
There’s a lot going on in this film and, despite the seemingly incongruent themes of terrorism, romance and deep-sea exploration, Wenders slowly and with characteristic elegance succeeds in weaving all these ideas together using the metaphor of submergence.
This is a beautiful, poetic and intelligent film that may be too slow and romantic for those craving the adrenaline shot of the traditional thriller, but I think Wenders fans will find the pace and depth just right.