Words and PicturesWords and Pictures
Words and Pictures Poster

July 25 — July 31

Words and Pictures

Rated PG-13 for sexuality, nude sketches, mature themes, and profanity; 111 minutes.

Link to film's website

Fri 5:30 7:45
Sat & Sun 2:00 5:00 7:30
Mon-Thur 5:30

Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.

Films about artists are not uncommon; but movies about the rivalry and unique bond between artists of equal talent (no one-sided Mozart vs. Salieri contests) are rare—and difficult to make convincing. Veteran director Fred Schepisi (Last Orders, A Cry in the Dark) meets the challenge, creating with Words and Pictures a film that not only explores the special qualities of two different art forms (literature and painting) but provides a touching, mature romance showcasing the terrific chemistry of two superb actors, Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. Owen is Jack Marcus, an English teacher at an exclusive private New England high school; Jack is a poet-novelist gripped by writer’s block, intimidated by his own early success, now frittering away his talent with alcohol, silly word games that annoy his fellow teachers, and a bitter, self-pitying attitude toward the younger generation and what he perceives as their social networking-driven disregard for art. Italian-born Dina Delsanto (Binoche) arrives as the new art teacher; her tough, uncompromising approach earns her the nickname “the Icicle” among her students. Like Jack, she is thwarted from realizing her full artistic gifts: stricken with rheumatoid arthritis that forces her to use a leg brace and cane (which rumors claim she once beat a student with), Dina struggles to regain her former youthful promise. When Jack leans that Dina has apparently denigrated “words,” he challenges her to match her chosen art against his: she will create a painting on any subject of her choice; he will write 1,000 words about the same subject; the students will decide whose accomplishment is greater. Thus, the contest is not just determining the quality of one artist against another, but the value of one art form against another. Since cinema at its best is the masterful combination of words and pictures, there’s no filmmaking bias at work. Part of the film’s pleasure is that Schepisi and screenwriter Gerald Di Pego are genuinely interested in exploring this question, and give both sides equal weight. It’s not really a spoiler to say that the filmmakers will find them both essential art forms, but the debate is amusing, insightful, and does for the movie audience what Jack hopes the contest will do for his increasingly disaffected, prestige-obsessed students: it makes us think about why artists are drawn to certain artistic media and what the capabilities of those media are. The romance between Jack and Dina is inevitable but distinguished by the actors’ willingness to be prickly, temperamental, and often difficult to like—what saves them is their genuine love of art and passion for making their students (and us) care about it. Owen gives an especially brave performance, making no attempt to soften Jack’s self-absorption and overriding need to regain his former glory. He initially presents his challenge to Dina because he senses that she’s being set up to replace him—Jack sees the maneuver as proof that the school—and the world—cares more about images than words, that the primacy of language itself is at stake. But Jack’s pedantic love of etymology and professed love of literature masks a fear of real communication—a failing that is slowly alienating Jack from his students. Binoche’s character is more sympathetic because she is afflicted with a condition that is beyond her control and physically shackles her, making it torture to lift a paint brush, much less use one the way she once could. Jack’s paralysis is emotional; it drives him to drink openly and suspect the administration of shoving him out the door. Like the best romantic comedies, Words and Pictures shows how two individually imperfect, damaged people elevate one another: initially they’re prodding each other (and their students in the process) to reach their artistic potential; in a more subtle way, they’re encouraging one another to achieve their full human potential. The evolving relationship between Jack and Dina is the soul of the film, but Words and Pictures is also excellent at evoking the claustrophobic milieu of the prep school, imbued with the faintest nostalgic hues by cinematographer Ian Baker. The film captures the convoluted spider’s web of relationships that happen among staff and students, as well as how such a close-knit environment can foster silly, harmless contests like the one Jack comes up with—and also more serious problems like bullying and professional misconduct. The film doesn’t become too dark, but it does provide some heavier material to contrast with the witty banter and lofty discussions about art and creativity and what really gives human life meaning. That banter and those discussions, though, are extremely engaging—in large part because Owen and Binoche clearly care about the characters they’re playing (Owen said in an interview for The Republic that he was drawn to the excellence of Di Pego’s script, particularly its dialogue; and Binoche actually paints professionally—Dina’s work in this film was actually hers). Owen and Binoche are proof that actors who are older than the traditional model types and ingénues, but possessing considerable intelligence, charm, personality, and offbeat good looks, make for the sexier, more electrifying romantic pairings. Their performances, coupled with Di Pego’s sparkling script and Schepisi’s understated direction, give Words and Pictures boundless appeal for moviegoers who love words or pictures—or both.

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