Words and Pictures, directed by Fred Schepisi
The flirting begins with a word game, where players go through alternating letters of the alphabet and have to think of five-plus syllable words that start with each letter. He, a top-notch prep school English teacher, has the obvious advantage, but she is a stubborn New Yorker, and their back-and-forth of long words like “anti-egalitarianism” punctuates the dialogue as their relationship builds.
When Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) tells her art class that words are “lies and traps,” in contrast to created images, Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) will have none of it and a “war” begins over which medium is more powerful, words or pictures. Jack challenges Dina to a face-off before the school: her best picture versus a thousand words from him to decide if, contrary to the famous saying, a picture really is worth more than a thousand words.
In many respects Jack is a modern day John Keating – only with less tenderness and more cheek. One of his students even affectionately calls him “Captain” after the Whitman poem. Like Keating, he’s the English teacher we wish we had, a man passionate about his craft. He pushes his students to think outside the box, invent new words and create never-before-read sentences that capture fresh images and new ideas and break hearts and move nations. He resents how their focus has evolved toward the numbing digital world of smartphones and social networks and how their concern for English class has been debased to grades so that they can get into an Ivy League school. “Who are you droids? What have you done with my class that you’ve kidnapped and replaced?” he says upon a lackadaisical reading of Updike. In response, almost in vengeance, he rarely bothers to grade assignments on time and pushes his students relentlessly to savor the written word for its own sake.
Unlike Dead Poets Society, however, the film is about Jack himself, not his students, so even though he is an awfully good teacher, and knows it, he has flaws. He goes home every night and drinks himself into a stupor – the purpose of which is twofold. As a washed-up award-winning author, he struggles with writers’ block; and as a father, he aims to escape the hurt of a past divorce and estranged son. As the film begins, this vice puts his job in jeopardy, which only exacerbates the problem.
Standing across from him is Binoche’s Gina Delsanto, whose difficulties life has forced upon her. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, which inhibits physical movement and thus her ability to paint. The disease has forced her out of the successful, thriving art scene of New York City into the countryside with her family. Like Jack, she has fallen from higher society’s good graces and finds the trivialities of prep school culture annoying. This makes her the perfect sparring partner for him, and in their tattered lives they find in each other something worth valuing more than the memory of what they lost. “Is a man worth more than his words, a woman worth more than her pictures?” they ask each other. Perhaps not, but in this fleeting life, where fate is so prone to take things away, they’ll just have to make do.
Lovers of all aspects of the written word – prose, poetry, vocabulary, etymology – are bound to delight in Words and Pictures. Jack’s antics add a sweet layer of richness, for instance, as he accuses Dina of being aloof, and explains to her how it is a Dutch word that means to sail into the wind. For the rest of the film we then picture her, with her limp, pushing into a headwind everywhere she goes, confident but undaunted, a wonderfully nuanced picture of “aloofness.”
(MINOR SPOILER) The film ends with the sentimental and predictable (but not-unwelcome) conclusion of “both/and” instead of “either/or.” Both words and pictures have the power the move us, to make life meaningful, yea verily to complete each other – as their romance suggests. We call writers “artists” for a reason, after all, and the fact that the story is told through film – a medium that unites words and moving pictures – drives the point home.
In the end, Words and Pictures offers us a pleasant meditation on two broad truths: First, the nature of art is such that it is able to penetrate the deepest levels of being; and second, life on the far side of one’s prime must be redeemed through relationships. Indeed, as the prospects of worldly accomplishments dim, and as dreams and ambition fade, the only things that keep our lives illuminated are beauty for its own sake and purpose through love, imperfect though it may be.