The Teachers Are the Children in 'Words and Pictures'

The premise of the film is too silly to ring as true, but the palpable chemistry of Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche makes this an enjoyable trifle.

Words and Pictures

Director: Fred Schepisi
Cast: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Keegan Connor Tracy, Bruce Davison, Amy Brenneman
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated: PG-13
US DVD Release Date: 2014-09-09

When Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) walks into the teacher's lounge at her new place of employment, a high-society preparatory school, the boozy and freestyling English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) notices her right away. Though she is reserved and distant, Jack makes an attempt at a flirtatious introduction. When she tells him she will be teaching an honors art class, he quips, "Hence the scarf." Though he is a stronger personality, she doesn't let him get the best of her; when he says he is an English teacher, she quips back, "Hence the hence."

Such witty barbs are peppered throughout Words and Pictures. The success of this playful banter is due to Binoche and Owen's remarkable chemistry as much as it is to Gerald Di Pego's script. Binoche's introverted rage is met perfectly by Owen's sly gregariousness. (Owen's role here is basically a contemporary update of his portrayal of Ernest Hemingway in the HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn.)

This repartee is seriously needed, too, because the basic premise of Words and Pictures is so outright ridiculous that the only thing that saves it from becoming a totally forgettable rom-com is the success of its actors. The film requires the absolute best out of Binoche and Owen, and although neither performance will have anyone speculating about potential awards, the undeniable charm of the pair does give the story much needed vitality.

As the name Words and Pictures implies, the conflict that Di Pego and director Fred Schepisi use as the central framing devices is one between two artistic mediums. On her first day at the fancy preparatory school, Dina tells her art students, "Words are lies; words are traps."

Though her intent is to use a provocation to inspire her art students towards greatness, when her view of the written word gets around, Jack starts up a feud. The two agree to have a competition between "words and pictures", to culminate in a large school forum wherein students vote on which method of making art is superior.

Ostensibly, Jack and Dina are serious academics. Though he hasn't been published in several years, Jack is a writer and poet of some repute. Dina is a highly renowned artist, who is only held back from pursuing her work to its fullest extent by her debilitating rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which has progressed to so severe a stage that at times she cannot even change her clothes without assistance. In spite of their academic chops, however, both Jack and Dina fully commit themselves to what is an outrightly silly ideological battle, one that, in the first place, isn't much of a battle.

The value of art and the value of literature are subjects scholars the world over have written innumerable volumes about, but rarely, if ever, do they devolve to, "Words are better!" "No, pictures are better!" Indeed, the film itself ends up recognizing this in the end, when at the final "Words vs. Pictures" assembly at the school, no vote is taken for which side won. Jack instead gives an erudite speech that exults the value both of literature and of visual art. Big surprise: words and pictures aren't mutually exclusive ventures.

Of course, despite its presence as a key framing device, the "battle" between words and pictures is less about a judgment of aesthetic paradigms but instead the troubled lives of Jack and Dina. (And, as Jack notes, a way of getting the students' competitive drives up so as to get them more involved in the classroom.) One of the many reasons why Jack hasn't written in years is due to his failed marriage and boorish alcoholism.

He tries to be a charming drunk ("It's a hobby", he tells a concerned restaurant manager), but, as it usually happens, what he perceives as charm comes off instead as uninvited cantankerousness. It's no wonder his son keeps avoiding his calls.

Dina, meanwhile, has bottled up the anger she has stemming from her RA. She is able to paint with the assistance of an arm brace and various suspension devices that allow her to hang in the air while painting, but she nonetheless feel as if her body is constricting who she truly is. Her students see her as stringent and severe, but her methods have largely to do with her trying to bring out the greatness in others that she once saw in herself. This "tough love" method is one that ends up working on many of her students; however, she certainly doesn't make friends with everyone in doing so.

The battle between words and pictures, then, ends up not being the battle it is at first set out to be. This duel is really a proxy conflict fought by people who, by internalizing their worst flaws, hold themselves back from expressing what they truly feel. In choosing to bury themselves in a battle so outrightly cartoonish, Jack and Dina reveal their stunted emotional states. They fail to see that reconciliation lies right in front of them.

While the construction of Words and Pictures is far too trifling to take seriously, Binoche and Owen give it their best, and as a result they elevate what otherwise would have been an outlandish premise into a fairly pleasurable affair. Watching the two of them flirt and bicker is both pleasing to the ear and the eyes: words and pictures, working together.

Included on the DVD are a few extras, including a serviceable but otherwise unremarkable making-of featurete.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.