By Joan Ellis
Is “Words and Pictures” such a pleasure just because it is an oasis in the summer sea of violent blockbusters? Partly
But, add to that Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen in a good story set in Academia and it becomes irresistible.
It would be easy to spot the flaws and sprinkle the whole with adjectives – obvious, predictable, and the like – but I humbly suggest you forget any impulse to criticize; just settle in to enjoy two fine actors having a very good time creating two complicated, cranky characters.
It’s no matter that we know from the beginning – in a 1940s kind of way – that they’re destined for each other. Just enjoy the ride.
We learn early on that Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) teaches honors English at a private New England high school; that he uses his quick mind to provoke his students and that something is wrong. That would be the dark messy apartment where he lives and drinks. He is descending into alcohol – from a thermos at school, from the bottle at home. Answering a summons to the office of Principal Rashid (Navid Negahban in a fine performance), he learns his job is in jeopardy. Alcohol suspected, his teaching charm diluted, Jack is on the Watch List.
At this moment, Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) arrives as the new hire to teach art honors. A widely respected painter hobbled by the increasing pain of rheumatoid arthritis, she is a strong woman proud of her work and despairing of her future. She is known as “The Icicle.”
Jack manufactures a contest between Delsanto’s students and his, a debate of sorts as to which is more important – words or pictures. The eventual effect, of course, is that both teachers, newly energized, impart that energy to their students as the contest escalates. It works because the quotes unleashed by Jack are strong and appropriate and the teaching by Delsanto is equally inspired.
We are challenged by Jack’s assertion that the Internet has limited the appreciation of language and books in the lives of his students and by his fear that the power and truth of words is being diminished day by day. Delsanto answers that “words are lies, traps,” that art is the communicator of ideas and emotion.
The academic contest escalates; her disease gets worse; his drinking takes him down.
Just enjoy watching Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen as they interact with their students and each other on the way to their inevitable softening.
Binoche, always so good at delivering emotion through subtle facial expression, manages to convey every mood of the cold teacher who paints with passion in her own studio. We learn in the final credits that Binoche did all the paintings shown in the movie.
Ask yourself what other actors might have built an appealing love story on the contemporary conflict of communication through words and pictures in the Internet era. Binoche and Owen do it with style.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.