He’s a published poet and educator. She’s a world-famous artist forced by ill health to become a teacher. Fate brings them to jobs at the same rich-kid prep school. Strong personalities clash, sparks fly, a war of words ensues and they rally their apathetic students behind a contest.
We know where “Words and Pictures,” opening Friday, is going, right? We’ve seen these formulaic plot points before in many TV and big-screen films – opposites attract, unorthodox teachers inspire students.
But though the end result may get us to where we thought we were going, the journey veers off on to refreshing, though sometimes uncomfortable, new paths. These aren’t likable characters, for starters, but you do want to like them. Their messy hair and clothing mirrors their imperfect lives. And you will cringe at some of the self-destructive things they say and do.
But the fact that they are played by two very fine actors, Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, elevates even the most stereotypical character trait to the point where the audience understands there is much more to both of them than what we can see on the surface.
The arrogant and perennially disheveled Jack Marcus (Owen) is an alcoholic whose words, on paper at least, have dried up. He has no problem spewing verbiage, though, always annoyingly ready to share the origin of a word or to play his word game. (“I give you a five-syllable word that starts with A, then you give me one that starts with B.”) He can be so irritating that people literally hide from him. He’s as bored by his students as they are of him. All of this puts his job in jeopardy and though he says he will use anything and anyone to save it, you will still be shattered learning how low he goes.
Binoche, who actually painted the art in the movie, plays Dina Delsanto an artist who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. The disease is not only robbing her of her artistic talents but her joy as well. (“The Icicle” is what they call her, the teachers are told before she arrives.) Her worsening chronic pain is illustrated in several emotional scenes including one in which a tearful Binoche has to smash a bottle of painkillers to get it open.
They are both hanging on by a thread that their own actions may cut at any minute. They don’t like themselves and they don’t like their students, either.
“You gave me oatmeal when you could have served me a New York steak,” Jack says to one student about her use of words. Ouch.
“I don’t need to know you,” Dina curtly tells students on her first day of class. Double ouch.
Jack, clearly seeing Dina as a new challenge, starts to play his exasperating games with her. Annoyance leads to a bit of flirtation until Dina hits low. Real low for this man of words.
“Don’t trust the words,” she tells her art honors class. “The words are lies. The words are traps.”
It doesn’t take long for Dina’s fighting words to get back to Jack, who, in his typical grandiose fashion, declares a war to his students. It’s a war of words vs. art that will converge at a school assembly.
It’s wonderful to watch as the two adults spar. They know what sets each other off and use it well, sometimes even humorously. (Binoche has an infectous laugh that seems to erupt from nowhere.) When she quotes the cliché, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” his reaction is hilarious. As they energize their bored students with their “war,” they energize themselves by reaching deep and rediscovering the joy and creativity that made them fall so deeply for words and art in the first place.
Their restored passions – for their crafts and for life – are invigorating.
Those who love the very things in this film’s title – “Words and Pictures” – will be touched by the movie’s profound passion for both. Though the film lags at times, screenwriter Gerald DiPego (“The Forgotten,” “Phenomenon”) doesn’t falter in the words he gives Binoche and Owen to use as they argue over their passions.
Whether these two lost souls can find each other is only part of the journey – one that is well worth taking with them.
WORDS AND PICTURES
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Clive Owen, Bruce Davison, Amy Brenneman
Director: Fred Schepisi
Running time: 120 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sexual material including nude sketches, language and some mature thematic material.
The Lowdown: A bickering art instructor and English teacher start a war of words vs. art that results in a student competition.