Submarine – A journey through a genre.

Submarine is a coming of age story based on the novel of the same name by Joe Dunthorne. It serves as the directorial debut for Richard Ayoade.

There is a scene in this very sweet film that flows thusly:

“It’s rude to leave a film before it’s finished.”
“who to?”
“to the filmmakers.”
“how are they going to know?”
“they just do know.”
“How?”
“they just do.”

I need to inform the filmmakers that of the four people sitting in the audience during this film, three left before it was over.

Submarine is the coming of age story of Oliver Tate a remarkably normal, ordinary school boy who fantasizes that he is a latent genius. This fantasy is mired in the fifteen year old desire to be seen as different and special (as the child is recognising the capabilities in himself to become adult he is swept away by his own magnitude as with all fifteen year olds) in face of the overwhelming evidence that you are not different and special, despite the small differences in you. Oliver decides he wants a girlfriend in order to lose his virginity while it is still illegal for him to do so, and along his journey into the complexities of love and relationship he notices something wrong with his parents relationship and decides to work on that as well.
In working on these two projects, Oliver comes face to face with his weakness, recognises himself in his father who he always felt distanced from, and sees what it will take for him to be a better man – or rather – a man at all.

The film is an adaptation of the book by Joe Dunthorne, adaptation done by Richard Ayoade himself. I think this may be the beginning of the problems for me. I haven’t read the book, but the characters in the film held so much of the “quirky-ness” of Richard Ayoade’s on-screen characters, I got the feeling a great deal of licence has been taken in the portrayal of Oliver and his girlfriend Jordana. The book is one of “those” coming of age novels and there is a cute reference in the narrative, to critical texts in the movement from child to adult, the key being “The Catcher in the Rye” that identifies this book as one in a now established genre. This is something the film (while capturing the scene) seems to miss entirely, more self-consciously focussed on making something popular (which it can claim as a success) rather than recognising itself as contributing to an ongoing dialogue.

 

I have been reading the reviews for Submarine and the majority of them are warm because – lets face it – everyone involved in this project is just so damn peachy-keen. I really like Richard Ayoade. So does everyone. Craig Roberts is a darling Oliver and Yasmin Paige a delightful Jordana. The support cast are all wonderful, the stand out by far being Noah Taylor as Oliver’s dad, and the heart that pulses at the base of the narrative is strong and warm and pure. In an age exhausted with teen romp sex scandal comedies and hard-core “Thirteen” style endless yawns about ‘where-the-fuck-are-your-kids’, this is a breath of fresh air.

 

The thing that bugs me about the way this film was made is the lack of originality. Ayoade uses lots of techniques. The film is split into three primary narratives, each identified with Godard-style text. The parents condescend to the children in crucial formative moments to avoid intimacy ah-la-Hughes. Craig Roberts has a startling resemblance to Bud Cort’s Harold of Harold and Maud (thank you Adam Lippe).  It even has the “running along the beach” to ‘build a connection with your lost love when you don’t need to run, but it builds suspense as if she were a phantom about to disappear smoke-like from between your fingers and not a girl you will see at school every day for the next one to three  years’. (A scene repeated throughout the film and referencing the closing scenes of The 400 Blows)

The film itself embodies its own narrative, ie – its quirky and awkward with its jokes, its self-indulgent camera work, its in and out of mind film techniques, but this is startlingly like all the Richard Ayoade characters in itself. Or rather a depressing cross between Richard Ayoade and Wes Anderson.   It even has the technique of combining pathos with humour just in case the jokes aren’t funny enough.   Which they aren’t.

Most unforgivable crime of all, and im not sure if this is intentional, but there is too great a Jeunet influence in this film and at this moment in time that is a deep cinematic crime.

The film seems to be a running commentary on its own genre. It jumps at and claims a little from many different coming of age style films (including Juno which is out of time frame). However, the film itself displays this ‘klnowledge’ like information. It doesn’t ‘use’ it. One is left with the distinct impression this is a showcase of cleverness rather than an insightful contribution to the genre.

I did enjoy the nod to the French new wave, because I am a huge fan of this style of cinema myself.  The Rhomer reference (the long-suffering father ends up seeing Crocodile Dundee instead – a very personal moment of cultural cringe fun for me) the plastering of Olivers walls with french new wave cinema posters like Le Samurai and Le Cirque Rouge, verite camera, moving freeze frames, jump cutting etc.  Every class rom scene and school scene is almost completely lifted out of The 400 Blows.  But one really can’t help feeling this little film is more about Richard Ayoade’s “genius” than the book, the characters, or fifteen year old boys. He parades himself and his knowledge, where a film like The 400 Blows is all about using cinema to reveal a new perspective. Ayoade doesn’t do this in any way. There is emphatically nothing fresh here. Instead characters, actors, drama, narrative are completely sacrificed fro the directors desire to… well show off basically.

There is also the repeated reference to Americana, juxtaposed against the cinematic history of the French New Wave. America is represented in invasion langauge and sitcoms.  This is a nice touch given the eighties were all about our fear America was going to take over the world.  The film is set in colourless dreary Whales, which posits a nice comparison with the hyper-colouised ideal of Americana. And of course, Jordanas red Mac, always there to remind us what “colour” she brings to Olivers life.

I know most people really enjoyed this film. If you are a Richard Ayoade fan, I think you will really enjoy it, because it is unapologetically his baby. As  writer, I am feeling a little for Joe Dunthorne. I can’t help noticing he and his probably remarkable book (if the basics underlying this film are anything to go by) have been by-past for an opportunity to glorify a director. But, I guess film is all about showcasing these days, and less and less about art.

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