Words and Pictures, starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, is a middle-aged romantic comedy masquerading as a war between literature and art. The battleground is a Maine prep school set in a small town somewhere along the state’s bucolic coastline. Owen plays Jack Marcus, the resident English teacher. The brash, unconventional, Marcus has a love of language, his students and the vodka in his thermos. Dina Delsanto (Binoche) is the new art teacher. An acclaimed abstract painter, she is aloof, unattached and being crippled by rheumatoid arthritis.
Though the argument that swirls around their flirting is ostensibly over which art form is more significant, in reality Marcus and Delsanto are fighting personal demons and diseases. Their attraction comes as a surprise. In the prep school, adult and teenage angst and intellectual jockeying fill the corridors, classrooms and the teachers lounge. There are contrivances around every corner too. One is a word game Marcus plays that may soon irritate you as much as it does his fellow teachers. But for the most part, the florid flourishes are so lightly played by Owen and Binoche, screenwriter Gerald Di Pego’s melodrama can almost be forgiven.
It helps to have director Fred Schepisi’s hand on the rom-com wheel. He brings a kind of ease to the screen so actors flourish even when the material doesn’t quite measure up. Words and Pictures is a slighter movie, but it has the same sort of frothy appeal of Schepisi’s Six Degrees of Separation with Will Smith in 1993 and his contemporary take on Cyrano de Bergerac starring Steve Martin, 1987’s Roxanne.
One of the film’s themes is the idea of inspiration — what inspires an artist to paint, a writer to write and students to think. What focuses the Words and Pictures discussion — and there is a lot in this very talky film — is a showdown Marcus devises in part to save his job, which his drinking has put in jeopardy.
The honors English and art students are to put the art-versus-literature debate on trial before the entire student body, using as their starting point a new poem Marcus has written and a new piece Delsanto paints after reading it. There are a few too many complications, including other tensions at the school that involve dating, bullying and social media. Most of it is embodied in the poorly drawn conflict between shy, talented art student Emily (Valerie Tian) and Swint (Adam DiMarco), her unwanted and increasingly insistent suitor.
The film is far more interesting when it leaves the classroom behind. The coastal town, with spots in and around Vancouver, Canada, subbing for Maine, is beautifully rustic and becomes a lovely backdrop for romance through cinematographer Ian Baker’s lens.
The actors make a lovely pair as well in all their flirting and fighting through very grown-up problems. Owen is deft at shifting Marcus through various highs and lows, moving easily through dialogue laced with literary allusions, self-deprecating romantic gestures and destructive alcoholic rages.
Binoche is a surprise. Not so much for what she says as for the painting she does. All of Delsanto’s art that we see in the film has been created by Binoche, some from her earlier work, some for the film. It is fascinating to watch as the actress in character paints a piece right in front of us. Taking what she knows of the art form and the way rheumatoid arthritis inhibits movement, Binoche creates a dramatic portrait of artistic expression and physical pain.
As Words and Pictures moves toward its final chapter, you may find yourself liking Marcus and Delsanto. That the couple have any charm is thanks to Owen and Binoche. In fact, it is hard not to hope that they’ll get another chance at romance some day — the actors, that is.
Cast: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Valeria Tian, Navid Negahbah..
Director: Fred Schepsi.
Screenwriter: Gerard Di Pego.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 111 minutes. Mild vulgar language, adult themes. Opens Friday June 6 in Miami-Dade only: South Beach, Sunset Place, Aventura.