It wasn’t what I was expecting, so I should not hold that against it, but I found Words and Pictures just a tad disappointing. It is a very nice movie, not a great movie, but nice, and its heart is in the right place.
The film deals with an English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) who teaches at a very privileged prep school in Maine. Marcus–who once had a promising start as a writer– is brilliant, witty, energetic, and charming. The students love him; his colleagues tolerate him; his bosses are beginning to tire of him. We immediately see him chastised for being late–an occurrence that is more and more frequent because at night he is drinking more and more. (I found this part a bit unbelievable because after his nightly excesses there is no way he could perform so elegantly in the classroom each day. Add to that the thermos full of vodka he drinks with his lunch each day and his engaging classroom demeanor seems unreal.)
Because of cuts at another school, the school is able to hire a new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). A successful gallery artist, Delsanto has left New York City due to crippling rheumatoid arthritis which forces her to walk with a cane, strap brushes to her wrists, and suffer intense pain, and she has come to rural Maine where she gets the necessary help from her sister.
She immediately clashes with Marcus, but not without hidden a smile of pleasure.
And this is where I got it wrong. As Hollywood usually goes, the film begins as a typical romantic comedy. Two strong-willed, feisty characters are thrown together–ala Tracy and Hepburn– battle and show their disdain for each other, and finally fall in love. Yet, Words and Pictures takes another tack.
In her first class of Honors Art, Delsanto tells her class that “Words are lies, traps.” Since Marcus teaches the same students, her comments get back to him, and he initiates a war. Words vs picture: What is more powerful? What is more true? What is more dangerous?
And while the battle began between the two adults, the students get very much involved, and actually experience a truly great learning experience. (Educators now call this kind of thing “Project Based Learning.”) The “words” that the students use and the artwork they create as different sides in this battle of philosophies are impressive at the least.
As the battle goes on, Marcus learns that the school board is considering his dismissal, his relationship with his son is becoming more and more estranged, and his muse has completely dried up. And, he begins drinking even more heavily.
Delsanto’s condition worsens–she cannot undress herself or hold a brush without help–but her artistic output is becoming more and more robust.
Ultimately, these two flawed adults get together, but their lovely day together is sabotaged by Marcus’ destructive, drunken night.
It takes the final school assembly, where the contest between “words and pictures” is judged to bring some resolution to the film. Here, Marcus gives a speech stating that there is no greater approach–that together words and pictures are often more powerful than apart. (I’m not sure I agree.) Afterwards, we are left hanging–does Delsanto merely forgive Marcus or does she let him back into her life.
To see a romantic film about two adults, seriously flawed in their own ways, is a rarity in film these days (at least in American movies). And to have this romance played out by the like of such actors as Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen is special. And this is where Words and Pictures promised a delight.
But somewhere along the line, the relationship between Marcus and Delsanto gets hijacked. The philosophical arguments of “words vs. pictures” take center stage, and–by the very nature of film– can only be superficial at best, and ultimately unfulfilling. And we are further distracted by the subplots of Marcus and his son’s disintegrating relationship and an annoying story of a predatory student who continually harasses a shy student in his class. (Granted both of these subplots can be tied into the overall argument of “words vs. pictures,” but again, it is weak.) And so, the “romance”–even the relationship–between Marcus and Delsanto too often gets pushed aside and loses its cinematic momentum,
In the end, I enjoyed Words and Pictures, but I wanted to like the film more than I did. It had the makings of a sweet romance, but the un-fleshed-out philosophical argument got in the way.
What I found most interesting was that all of Dina Delsanto’s artwork was painted by Binoche herself. That bit of info, coming late in the credits, is amazing, for the paintings are powerful expressionist and abstract works that to my untutored eye were dazzling. Binoche has always been one of my favorite actresses…now even more so.