Clive Owen plays Jack Marcus, a poet who teaches literature in a New England prep school. Once a literary light, he has become a shabby, ill-tempered man who spends more time drinking than writing. We have the sense that he blames his students for his creative malaise; he harangues them constantly for being more interested in their smart phones and tablets than they are in the authors and literature that he reveres. His disarray and the apathy that is apparent in his classes is not lost on his superiors: he’s told that his job is on the line.
Brand-new on the scene is Dina Delsanto, a painter played by Juliette Binoche. She has been hired to teach the arts honors class. She wears a leg brace and walks with difficulty; we gradually learn that she is struggling with rheumatoid arthritis. She is defiant and angry about her affliction; one that is affecting every aspect of her life. It is the reason she has had to leave the New York art scene and her considerable standing there.
Jack is immediately drawn to Dina. He keeps trying to engage her in a verbal scrabble game he plays, or tries to play, with other faculty members—most of them don’t like him and don’t care to play. Dina doesn’t want to play either, but we can see that there is something about Jack that intrigues her. Mainly because of Jack’s need to spar and prove himself, the chemistry between them takes the form of a rivalry between their two classes: Is a picture worth a thousand words? How much can you communicate without words? And can you communicate complex ideas without words?
As the rivalry progresses. Jack is turned on by “the war” he’s declared, and the competition fuels his classes with new life. It’s wonderful to listen to his fluency with language, to hear him make a point or challenge his students by quoting poets and passages from literature, and we become engaged, along with his students, by the questions he poses. But Jack continues to drink and to insist that he can handle the alcohol, while those around him—including his twenty-something son—can see it’s the alcohol that has the upper hand.
While Jack tries to blot out his dark night of the soul with liquor, Dina is struggling with a body that no longer heeds her bidding. She is enraged at the prospect of her increasing dependence on others to do things for her that she has always done for herself. Perhaps even more painful than the physical pain of the arthritis is its attack on the work that is the core of her being – how does a painter paint when she can no longer hold or control a brush?
In terms of pure film, the most pleasurable visual experiences in Words and Pictures is watching Dina learn new ways to paint, employing unusual methods that enable her to get what she sees and feels on canvas. As she tells one of her most promising students: “You are learning to paint what you see. I am learning to see what I can paint.”
All the Delsanto paintings, from trial runs to finished canvases, were painted by Ms. Binoche, who is a visual artist as well as an actor. She and the character she plays are known for their portraiture, and like her character, Ms. Binoche had to discover how to convey her interior life through abstract paintings. The paintings—especially the large canvas that Dina Delsanto is finally happy with—are powerful and arresting, both visually and emotionally.
This film effectively communicates the joy and beauty in both language and the visual arts. But before the story is done, we also see how pictures can cause pain, and how language can be employed to betray and deceive.
Words and Pictures made me want to write and read, paint and look at paintings. It’s worth seeing for the wit and intelligence of the script, for the magnetism of its two stars, and for the way it makes you think about the place of language and art in our lives. Not long after seeing it, I was taking a walk and looked for a long time at a hedgerow beside an old railroad track. Tall grasses grew along the track, and the hedge was thick, full, its summer green interspersed with the deep purple masses of the plum trees that ran parallel to the hedgerow. How do I paint that, I wondered. How do I write it? That experience, those two questions, are the sweet residue of seeing Words and Pictures.