I interviewed director Wim Wenders in the mid-’90s, and a sizable part of the conversation focused on an element of filmmaking he found supremely important: the sense of place. One can’t just parachute in somewhere and shoot a film; you need to know a location and understand it.
Well … hmmm. Wenders’ new film, Submergence, travels to a terrorist encampment in Somalia and a deep-diving submarine at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Compared to Wenders’ explorations of his native Germany in Wings of Desire and The American Friend or his deep drilling of the American landscape in Paris, Texas, this is a tourist’s visit. It might explain why Submergence—though sincere and sometimes woozily affecting—feels like a skim over the surface.
Things begin as two strangers meet in a deluxe French resort. Dani (Oscar winner Alicia Vikander) is a marine scientist, counting the days to her first trip in a deepwater sub, a journey that inspires thoughts about the fragility of life. James (James McAvoy) says he is a British government employee working on global water issues—so they have that in common. When they quiz each other about their favorite bodies of water (flirting couples have been known to do this): she says Atlantic, he says the human body.
Early on, we know there’s more to his story, something to do with dangerous espionage. He’s off to Africa, she’s bound for Iceland, so their romance is brief. The courtship itself is appealing in part because Vikander goes straight to the point of a scene—Dani is not meek, or compliant, or even all that nice. You believe her commitment to science, completely. That’s why, when the second half of the film separates the two, Dani’s shift from focused scientist to worried lover doesn’t ring especially true. The separation does create some haunting connections between Dani and James, because Wenders understands that people in movies can be connected by a simple cut—just as you cut from one person to another when they’re in the same room, you can unite them across continents and oceans with a single edit. At times they’re in as much a mind-meld as Rey and Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi, another recent film that employed the same device. So when one of them recites John Donne’s “No Man Is an Island,” we believe that both people can hear the words, somehow. They are, to borrow the title of another Wenders film, “faraway, so close!”
In this arena, Wenders owes something to the example of the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose movies (The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colors trilogy especially) explored mysterious linkages. It feels as if Wenders is sightseeing in Kieslowski’s mystical territory, in fact, as the film’s take on spirituality is just a little undercooked.
Wenders’ films have meandered in recent years, and unfortunately Submergence (based on J.M. Ledgard’s novel) isn’t a definitive return to form. But I did like the Germanic sobriety Wenders applies to the material—you never doubt something is at stake, even if the storytelling pieces don’t always pay off. When Dani and James wander outside and talk of love and death, Wenders foregrounds the sound of the wind whispering through the treetops, and darned if that eerie noise doesn’t resemble the bell tolling for one, or both, of them.