A Conversation With Writer Francine Prose About Film Submission
By Editor Joyce Chen
It will be difficult for viewers of the newly released film, Submission, based on Francine Prose’s 2000 novel Blue Angel, not to draw parallels between the uncomfortable power dynamics unfolding onscreen and the current cultural climate of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Furthermore, it would be impossible to ask viewers to refrain from doing so.
Part of the beauty of art, after all, is to appreciate it within new contexts, to understand the enduring potency of its message and how it may be reinterpreted for a new era. To wit, the complexity of Prose’s narrative is what makes her story so relevant to ponder nearly 20 years after its first publication.
Submission tells the tale of a middle-aged college professor, Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci), whose lot in life is humming along pretty mundanely: he teaches creative writing with a tenured position at a second-rate New England college; he’s happily married to the campus nurse, Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick), with whom he shares a college-aged daughter Ruby (Colby Minifie); and he’s trying to find the right inspiration to pen his second book as a follow-up to his highly acclaimed first work, about his father’s fatal decision to light himself on fire in protest of the Vietnam War.
In other words, he doesn’t have a whole lot to complain about, though the humdrum nature of his day-to-day makes it plausible that his meeting and working with a promising young student, Angela Argo (Addison Timlin), might spark something beyond a reinvigorated sense of purpose. The story is told primarily through Swenson’s lens, and as a result, the more prevalent narrative of predator versus victim is turned on its head: viewers can find themselves both sympathetic to Swenson’s plight and disgusted by his naiveté, but he does not, in the vein of a Harvey Weinstein, seem to be overtly trying to exercise his power over Argo. Relatedly, Argo is neither a doe-eyed Lolita nor a malicious misandrist; she is young and ambitious and is not only aware of the cards stacked against her, but has taken to playing them to her own advantage.
What results is an intricate look at sexual harassment and the politics of power, which can be especially blurry in creative realms, where egos and agendas can often lead to awkward social situations at best; litigious, unwanted advances at worst. Prose, who has been vocal about the existence of gray areas and alternate narratives through her writings for The Guardian, The Paris Review, and The New York Times, among many other outlets, says that when she first wrote Blue Angel, her focus was more about a man ruining his life over an obsessive love rather than a commentary on the politics of sex and academia.
But given the current call-out culture of the post-Weinstein era, it’s impossible not to project the #MeToo lens onto a film that was made years ago, based on a novel written nearly 20 years before that. What results is a new, nuanced reckoning with a system in which both Swenson and Argo exist, and an interesting, meta-conversation surrounding the ways in which we process and understand the dynamics playing out in the film itself. “I love to say the things that everybody knows but no one will say,” Prose said during an interview with Charlie Rose back in 2000. “I can’t figure out why, if everyone knows it, why isn’t anyone saying it?”
The irony of her comment is not lost on her now (Rose was accused of sexual harassment by eight women last fall and was summarily fired by CBS). Here, Prose talks to The Seventh Wave about the importance of nuanced understanding, the friction of conflicting narratives, and the culpability we all share in perpetuating a flawed system of punishment and redemption.
The Seventh Wave: First of all, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. I just finished watching the film last night and obviously have a lot of thoughts swirling. Just for a bit of background: I’m one of the editors over at The Seventh Wave, and we’re all about the idea of opposition and the idea of oppositional narratives in particular. I saw the film and I read your piece for The Paris Review, and I just thought, this addresses that idea so poignantly. So as a first thought — I’m trying to figure out where to start — what was it like for you to see these characters that you’d written more than 20 years ago play out on the big screen?
Francine Prose: Well, for one thing, people have been noticing that it’s a weirdly timely moment for [the film] to be happening. I mean, it’s shocking. Somebody just said to me, “Even if this film had come out six months ago, it wouldn’t have been so startling as it is now.” So there’s that. I mean, some of that stuff [sexual harassment in the workplace] was going on in the very late ‘90s, which is when I was writing it. As I said in The Paris Review piece, there were some high-profile cases even back then. But now, of course, it’s a whole different thing.
I thought the actors did such a great job. And I thought Stanley Tucci was kind of extraordinary in bringing humor to his role, and Addison Timlin was just fantastic. I mean, who wouldn’t have been fooled by her?
TSW: Right? And they really got into the nuance of those characters, I feel.
FP: Yeah, absolutely.
TSW: What I witnessed on the screen was that there are those grey areas and you can see how each character has their own responsibility, their own part, in what played out. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to that idea?
FP: One of the things that’s clear from the beginning is how Ted Swenson is just set up for the fall. I mean, he sets himself up for the fall he’s going to take. His vanity and his woundedness and his sense of wishing or having been destined for a better life than the life he’s leading — that’s all there, although there’s nothing wrong with his life. You might wonder, as Angela did, what he’s got to complain about. He’s got a comfortable job and a nice life — but he’s not writing, and he’s drawn to her, to Angela’s talent. I was particularly moved by the scene in the restaurant, where his wife Sherrie [goes off on him], and what she says: “Oh, you’re a vampire, feeding off the youth and the talent of young people.” I think that that’s a very good diagnosis of what happens to him.
TSW: When I was watching the film, it felt like there were several pivot points versus one main breaking point, at which it is revealed that Ted has been maliciously trying to do something or that Angela has been maliciously trying to do something. Is there something you can speak to in terms of how there is that kind of ambiguity in how these scenarios play out?
FP: Well, they both have their agendas, you know? I think his mistake is to think that they have the same agenda, when in fact they really don’t. So she’s going for something very complicated and he is deceiving himself into thinking that it’s this big love story that he’s involved in. And she wants to get published. He wants to be obsessed with a talented young person.
TSW: I’m wondering if you can speak a bit to the idea of power and how that plays out in the story. When the story first begins, it appears as though Ted is in a position of power but is shying away from it. Or at least that was my read. As the story progresses on, it becomes pretty apparent that even if he is shying away from that role, there’s no denying the fact that in a professor-student relationship, he has that kind of implicit power. And I was wondering if you could speak to that a bit in terms of how that power dynamic has played out in this particular story and in the larger realm, especially in the stories that have been erupting in the headlines recently.
TSW: Big questions, I know.
FP: I mean, when he says at the end that what he did was unprofessional, that pretty much nails it. As the teacher, you have the power, and I think personally speaking, that it’s a really, really bad idea what he did. It’s a terrible idea. You don’t do that. I mean, it’s an unreal position that you’re in as a teacher in terms of [your role with] the students. But one of the things that interests me about the story is that it’s a slightly different take on what we know about the power dynamic. Because at a certain point, as you were saying, the power shifts. He loses it and he doesn’t have it anymore. She just kind of assumes the power. A, because she’s ruthless. B, because she’s younger, and C, because he’s vulnerable and in this particular situation, stupid. So what we think of — and the way that this narrative has been portrayed — with the male predator and the female victim, I think it would be very hard to see that as the case in this situation.
TSW: That’s a testament to great writing.
FP: Thank you. And, well, you know, it’s an individual story. As I mentioned in The Paris Review piece, it’s something that happens to very particular people. It’s not a paradigm.
TSW: There was a line in the film when Professor Swenson was helping drive Angela to get her computer fixed, where he’d said that it’s “just a matter of one writer helping another writer,” and that struck me so deeply. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about that because I think that gets at a really big issue in the creative realm.
FP: He wants, he’s desperate to see it as a different kind of story than what it is. He really does want to think she’s talented and that this is the only thing he cares about and that there’s something essentially pure about their relationship. Well, his mistake is in not seeing how complicated it is.
TSW: What have the reactions been to the film so far in terms of people giving pushback or insisting that you’ve perhaps got the wrong take on the narrative?
FP: As I mentioned in The Paris Review piece, there was a reviewer in Denver who said, “This [narrative] is impossible, but it’s not Francine’s fault because when she wrote this 20 years ago, she didn’t know any better, blah blah blah.” And I expect there will be more of that. I’ve been slightly afraid [of putting out the film], saying, “You know, we may be on the wrong side of the moment,” because there’s so much justified anger out there being generated by #MeToo. Women have been horribly mistreated. And the hope, of course, is that it’s going to stop. No one can blame them for feeling like they’ve gotten a raw deal.
TSW: It makes me think, too, of the Monica Lewinsky piece for Vanity Fair that just came out. I see a connection there: a public narrative that was out there for so many years has been shifted because the lens or the framing has shifted, and the protagonist has changed, in a way. It’s no longer, here’s this woman we’re projecting all our thoughts and accusations onto. Now it’s, here’s a human being who’s coming forward with her side of the story. I’m wondering if perhaps there are those parallels between something like Lewinsky’s case in terms of changing narratives based on changing protagonists.
FP: Poor Monica. I feel sorry for her. I always felt so sorry for her. She just got tossed around in the situation that ultimately had nothing to — I mean, you know, look. As someone who’s been married for 40 years, almost 40 years, I don’t think it’s a good idea for women to sleep with other women’s husbands, or whatever they did. But the rage and the scandal that was dredged against her just seemed so excessive and it was about him. It wasn’t about her. And I can’t imagine that she didn’t feel at some point that this had nothing to do with her. I mean, that must have been a terrifying feeling, that you’re being used in some way by everyone. First by him, and then by the Republicans.
TSW: In that sense, then, because I’m right there with you in terms of feeling that way — I wonder if, say, with a film like Submission, a story like Blue Angel, these kinds of fictionalized works, can they help people to see that there are these other narratives?
FP: Oh, absolutely. And that’s the hope. That’s the hope. I mean, writing a work of fiction is writing about something that happened to two individual people. It didn’t happen to any other people. It just happened to these two. And that’s just something that you can’t forget. It’s very, very important. Nobody’s story is everybody’s story. It varies from person to person.
TSW: You mentioned previously that there were cases of sexual misconduct in the ‘90s, but now it feels like there’s just a deluge of all these people coming forward. I’m wondering, rereading or re-watching the story play out, what are your thoughts?
FP: Well, it’s very interesting to me. I wrote it a very long time ago and as a story, as a work of fiction, and, I think in this case, as a translation to film, I’m really pleased with how well it holds up. I mean, it’s been 20 years ago, but at least to me, it doesn’t feel dated. So that’s good news, I think.
TSW: And do you have a hope in terms of what audiences will take away from the film? And/or is it a different hope from what you hoped readers would take away from the story back then?
FP: Same hope. [laughs] Same hope. This is what happened to these people and it was a guy who made a really bad mistake, but he’s a human being. She’s a human being. They’re both flawed the way people are flawed, and that’s what makes it a story that hopefully sparks more conversations.
Francine Prose is the author of twenty works of fiction. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent works of nonfiction include the highly acclaimed Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, a Director’s Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her most recent novel is Mister Monkey. She lives in New York City.