Charming and bright, “Words and Pictures” speaks to the expression of heart and soul perhaps eclipsed by our wired world, and accidentally reminds us why we love the movies.
Here we meet Words, aka Jack Marcus, a dedicated English teacher at a classy Northeastern prep school. Marcus was once a well-respected literary figure, but he’s been slipping as of late, as channeling his inner F. Scott Fitzgerald has progressed beyond his ability to manage. He maintains his lighthearted, mischievous demeanor, but Marcus is on notice, and as far as the Board is concerned, imminent dismissal is but a formality.
Then into the teachers’ lounge one day walks Pictures, aka Art instructor Dina Delsanto. Delsanto is a celebrated artist from New York, making her engagement at the academy a bit of a puzzlement. But it’s not her choice, it’s her body’s: a health condition she deals with has robbed her of her ability to paint and demanded she move closer to family and the assistance it provides.
Words immediately launches his favorite word game in an attempt to charm the aloof newcomer, but when Pictures instructs their shared class to ignore the terms attributed to art and instead focus on its impressions, going so far as to say, “Words are lies,” and the class subsequently reports her heresy, well, Words declares war.
Thus begins an escalating battle that grows to include the students as it barrels toward an organized year-end showdown in which cases will be made and the student body will declare the victor.
Such resolute passions of course spark an opposites-attraction, and where there’s an easy chemistry between the actors, as here with Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, that always appeals. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the romance pales in comparison to the celebration of various modes of expression and inspiration, and how we use them both to find our way and to connect with the world around us. (Extra treat: Binoche herself created the paintings used in film.)
While naturally we’re pulling for love to prevail (this is a comedy, after all – and you did see “Stranger Than Fiction”, right?), it’s the Words vs. Pictures battle, and personal battle faced by each, that make “Words and Pictures” such a treat.
Couched within the sparkling verbal fencing and humorous explorations of both, elements “Words and Pictures” touches upon the ways in which each can be used to make oneself known to the world (for better or worse), and the deep anguish caused by an inability to wield them.
Academy Award nominees Owen and Binoche offer some of their best work in years, nuanced and convincing. So often we experience them in roles of Action and Beauty, but here we get to see them in full drama, communicating the fear, isolation, and grief that come from the haunting realization that one’s gift, one’s ability to express oneself, might be forever lost, out of reach.
“Words and Pictures” isn’t the kind of vehicle that will get Owen noticed for a dramatic performance, but here we get to see what he can really do, and the result is nothing short of marvelous. ([Aside] To anyone who, like Words, decides to give quitting drinking a go – and I’m not spoiling whether or not he’s successful at it – please don’t be put off by the depiction of the support group. It doesn’t claim to be AA but the inference is there, and it’s important to note that 12-Step of any flavor is not religious.)
“Words and Pictures” also quite surprisingly presents the kind of truth I was disappointed not to see in “The Fault in Our Stars”, and Binoche perfectly captures the full sense of the losses sustained as one watches one’s body fail before one’s eyes. There’s no nobility in it, no “perks” (however ironic they may be), and the movie stares this straight in the face. What we do with such loss may be noble, but the film makes clear the reality of what’s happening.
With a skillful pen, writer Gerald Di Pego never allows the deeply serious nature of its several subplots to undermine the film’s lightheartedness, yet uses them to give the film ballast and allow its meaning to shine through without pontification. One could argue that an epilogue of some form would have been welcome, but in following the logical conclusions I think his ending the film where he did was a wise decision, as it’s in keeping with the spirit of the story and places the period on its primary element.
“Words and Pictures” is foremost a story of personal authenticity and expression. And at one moment when a third form of expression, Music, steps to the fore, “Words and Pictures” [perhaps inadvertently] illustrates why movies mean so much to us. As the actors intone their words and use their bodies as their pictures, as the screen writers create the dialogue and the cinematographers and production teams create the visuals, as the composers create the scores, they bring us the perfect union of words, pictures, and music, thus expressing themselves and inspiring us.
Witty, elegant, and insightful, “Words and Pictures” celebrates the value and beauty of thoughtful human expression – and hopefully a digital native or two will catch it along the way. ;)
Story: When a prep school English teacher find his job in jeopardy, he generates some buzz by marshaling his fiery rivalry with a new Art teacher into a full-on competition as to which form of expression holds more value.
Genre: Comedy, drama, romance
Starring: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Bruce Davison, Navid Negahban, Amy Brenneman, Valerie Tian
Directed by: Fred Schepisi
Running time: 111 minutes
Houston release date: June 6, 2014
Tickets: Check IMDb.com or your local listings
Screened June 5th 2014 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX