Whether or not a picture is actually worth a thousand words depends on which picture, which words and whether the audience’s brain is hard-wired to favor verbal or visual thinking. Film being a visual medium by definition, any effort to make a movie about people intoxicated by language and literature has a steep hill to climb. So maybe only erstwhile English majors are going to feel the least bit charmed by the alcoholic writing teacher portrayed by Clive Owen in Fred Schepisi’s latest work, Words and Pictures, but it worked for me, mostly.
Ever since his first feature, The Devil’s Playground, the Australian director’s films have always had a tendency to teeter awkwardly in between conventional genre categories, and they don’t always work; but they’re always worth a peek even when they fail.Some reviewers are hating on Words and Pictures because they want to pigeonhole it as a screwball comedy like Schepisi’s successful 1987 vehicle for Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah, Roxanne. It fails to satisfy by the parameters of that genre because it isn’t really a screwball comedy; it’s a little too dark. The two leads – Owen as Jack Marcus and Juliette Binoche as Dina Delsanto – come at each other with a little too much baggage. As a Hollywood love/hate couple they have the requisite spark, but not the sparkle that people expect.
The setting is a tony private prep school somewhere in New England (though the film was shot in British Columbia) where the students are snarky, entitled and too absorbed in social media to evince any deep enthusiasm for learning, while the professors are just going through the motions and collecting their paychecks until it’s time to retire. The only one who still seems to care is Jack, and when we meet him he’s making himself obnoxious in an effort to inject some vim and vigor into the place, with little success. He relentlessly tries to prod his colleagues in the staff room into playing a running word game, and most of them dodge him with equal determination.
A former literary star who drinks too much to drown the panic of a stubborn case of writer’s block, Jack retains faith in his teaching ability even as his job security teeters – partly due to his being thrown out of the town’s poshest bar once too often and partly because the quality of his pet project, the school’s literary magazine, has been declining rapidly. His interest is piqued when a new art teacher comes on board, with an international reputation as a serious painter as well as a tough nut to crack, personalitywise. Predictably enough, they meet ugly, with Dina utterly unimpressed by Jack’s facile wordslinger schtik.
Under her prickly exterior, Dina too has an embarrassing secret. She has moved to the area from the big city to be closer to her sister, because she has a worsening case of rheumatoid arthritis. She walks with a cane, and her hands are so swollen that she has to trade in all the buttons on her clothes for Velcro; worse, she can’t hold a paintbrush anymore without adaptive devices. Though Jack’s attempts to chat her up grate on her, they have more in common than Dina wants to admit. Both are uncompromisingly tough on their minimally responsive students, and both need a serious challenge to pull them out of their artistic and social dead ends.
Most of the plot of Words and Pictures turns on a competition that Jack dreams up to add some drama to the creation of the next issue of the literary magazine – which needs to be really good in order for him to pass his upcoming performance review with the school’s board of directors. Picking up on a comment by Dina to some students who are in both their honors classes that words are traps and lies, he challenges her to prove that pictures are more powerful than words, while he endeavors to prove the opposite. Drawn in against her initial inclination, Dina finds, like Jack, that her students needed this challenge to get engaged in their artmaking. And that concept – the uses of adversity – is the actual theme of this movie, not the question of whether words or pictures truly rule.
More luminously beautiful now in middle age than she was as a young woman, Binoche is superbly nuanced as the closed-in artist; the merest quirk at the corner of her mouth lets us know that Jack is wearing down her defenses. Love is in the air at long last, but Jack blows it through his drinking and a desperate act of artistic dishonesty. That’s where the dark side of Words and Pictures yanks us rudely away from any preconceived notions of a frothy romantic comedy. Even if we liked Jack at the outset of the movie, we can’t by the middle. But by then the classroom war of words versus pictures has taken on a life of its own, and devotion to their respective artistic disciplines once again becomes the only lifeline for each of the two principals.
The denouement of Words and Pictures, alas, is a bit sappier and more predictable than the tonic goings-on that precede it. But the director has decided not to begrudge us our improbably happy outcome for these two snarling adversaries, and I for one don’t begrudge him the decision. Romantic protagonists who are also as smart as they are flawed are scarce as hens’ teeth in movies these days, and we need them to get together and make more of themselves.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at www.HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.