Rated PG-13 for sexual material including nude sketches, language and some mature thematic material
Written by Gerald di Pego
Directed by Fred Schepisi
Starring Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Bruce Davison and more
Most love stories aim straight for the heart, wanting audience members to swoon and sigh and hope right along with the protagonists. They want us to feel the romance happening onscreen.
“Words and Pictures,” on the other hand, seems to aim straight for the head. An academic love story between two cantankerous teachers, the movie is more concerned with the pain and glory of creativity than the emotional road map of two people finding each other. The resulting film is a beautiful, wrenching love letter to language and art, with some powerful things to say about both their creative and destructive power. The human romance that is also supposedly being portrayed, however, gets left out in the cold.
The movie is set in one of those tiny, precocious private high schools that seem to exist only in very expensive neighborhoods and the world of fiction. Clive Owen is Jack Marcus, the Honors English teacher with a serious drinking problem and the tendency to yell at his students for being mindless “droids.” Juliette Binoche is Dina, a famous artists in enough physical pain that she’s been forced to leave New York and become an art teacher. She’s slightly less abrasive than Marcus, but the same is true of your average pumice stone.
The two start a friendly battle over the importance of words versus art that soon draws in the rest of the school, having impassioned discussions with their students and each other and creating installations that show the supremacy of one over the other. They both argue beautifully about their preferred medium, and anyone in the audience who has ever fallen in love with either a word or an image will likely find themselves moved. Scriptwriter Gerald di Pego know exactly what it’s like to lose your heart to a passage in a book, or to have to struggle to bring an image in your mind to life, and they communicate that experience with exquisite delicacy.
When it comes to the actual romance, however, that kind of depth and believability is sorely lacking. Not even Owen’s most bounteous charms can save Jack from being a walking disaster area, an excellent topic of psychological analysis but hardly an appealing life partner. I can believe that he and Dina interest each other intellectually, and I’m sure he’s attracted because she seems to be the first woman in awhile who can stand talking to him for longer than 15 minutes.
Dina, on the other hand, nearly says at one point that part of the reason she’s entering into a relationship with him is because her ailment might not give her another opportunities. While this is entirely believable, and Binoche’s expression perfectly sells the pain of that worry, it’s hardly a reason to invest in the resulting romance.
There are other plot points, including Jack’s estrangement from his only son, a student attacking another student, and a plagarism incident that’s all the more tragic for feeling so unnecessary. In the end, though, these will scatter and fade from memory as surely as the central romance.
In “Words and Pictures,” much like the hearts of their central characters, it’s only the love of the arts that ends up mattering at all.