Words and Pictures
Sept 4, 2014, Anchorage Press
Australian director, Fred Schepisi made his debut in the mid-1970s with the film The Devil's Playground, a semi-autobiographical drama. He has had a prolific career with subsequent gems such Last Orders, Six Degrees of Separation and many more, including A Cry in the Dark, which gave popular culture the line "A dingo's got my baby" or, as it is often paraphrased, "A dingo ate my baby". Schepisi's body of work also includes romantic comedies such as Roxanne with Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah, and I.Q. with Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins. Schepisi's work is characterized by smart and fluid dialog from remarkable characters. The protagonists in his romantic comedies are usually well matched and have a playful synergy, the stories unfold with such good timing that they are actually funny-LOL funny. With a track record of exceptional films, Words and Pictures is a disappointment, it is strung together by cliché after cliché with occasional moments of good acting. Mindy Kaling, creator and star of The Mindy Project hit the nail on the head when she told Charlie Rose that in general, recent romantic comedies focus on the romance and not on comedy at all. Words and Pictures is a light romance at best even if considers itself a comedy.
Juliette Binoche plays renowned painter, Dina Delsanto, who moves from New York to take a teaching position in a small east coast town. Her move is also in part because she needs her family's support as she battles a debilitating rheumatoid arthritis condition. Clive Owen plays Jack Marcus, a has-been, alcoholic poet turned teacher. How's that for a cliché? The two are not only ill-suited to the prim and proper high school environment, they are also ill-suited for one another. Not that there isn't chemistry between the characters or actors, it's just that their chemistry is more like that in a buddy movie, a far distance from the on-screen chemistry in movies like The Philadelphia Story, Roman Holiday or When Harry Met Sally. The romance between the characters is so artificial that it leaves viewers questioning what their attraction is.
The plot for Words and Pictures is formulaic: man meets woman, man gets woman, man makes a mess of things, man redeems himself, man gets woman back. Schepisi's attempt to wrap the plot in an intellectual exploration of the value and impact of writing (words) versus the visual arts (pictures) falls flat. This premise is preposterous and simplistic because it ignores that people absorb and process information and their environment through multiple senses and disciplines, often all at once. Words or pictures are not mutually exclusive. The premise is developed through a direct challenge from Marcus to Delsanto to determine which art form is more relevant in modern times. The students in the high school honor classes are caught in the middle of the battle between Words and Pictures. There is an incident in the school that puts the debate in check and results in the expulsion of a student, and for good reason. The incident and issues raised however, are neatly resolved and put away.
The challenge is meant to be a form of flirtation, but it is also a vehicle for Marcus to prove himself as a teacher, a father and a man. Viewers may get the sense that Jack Marcus is so desperate to keep afloat that his challenge to Delsanto and his diatribes are one-sided and create conflict where there is no basis for one. Marcus' character arc is predictably nonexistent. His role is stereotypical as evidenced by the derivative allusion to "O Captain! My Captain", not because it references Walt Whitman's poem, but because it is clearly a pale imitation of Dead Poets Society. With the recent passing of Robin Williams, this particular use of "O Captain! My Captain" is especially cringe-worthy.
Juliette Binoche is a versatile actress who weaves in and out of languages and cultures with grace and intelligence. The French actress has worked with notable directors; the relationships she creates with them shapes her performances and usually delivers noteworthy results. Audiences may know Binoche from her lighter roles in movies like Chocolat with Johnny Depp or A Couch in New York with William Hurt, but she is at her best in more substantial roles. For example, her work in Three Colors: Blue with Polish director, Krysztof Kieslowski is still one of her most powerful performances; her role alongside Jeremy Irons in Damage leaves a long-lasting impression. In addition to being an actress, Binoche is also a visual artist, which is fortuitous for the execution of Words and Pictures.
Binoche painted the artworks seen in the movie herself in a seven-week period. The paintings are good enough to carry her portion of the film. One of the more interesting parts of the film is watching Binoche work as she emulates the process of Fabienne Verdier, a true master of abstract painting. Verdier's working process evolved out of a synthesis of traditional western art and her training and immersion in Chinese art and culture. The genius of Verdier's process is the blending of the two worlds. Her brushes are large, a single brush is made of 35 horsetails and can weigh over 38 lbs. In order to maneuver these colossal brushes onto giant painting surfaces, Verdier uses a series of pulleys, ropes and weights to maneuver the brushes.
Verdier's technique is adapted by Delsanto as she rediscovers the process of painting. Her resounding laughter and willingness to go along with the challenge creates a path for the final answer to the question of words versus pictures. Delsanto's physical limitations and her awareness of her condition gives viewers insight into how appreciative she is for the moments when she can paint, make love, or get dressed, and that is worth teaching.
Words and Pictures shows at Bear Tooth on Monday, September 8 at 7:30 p.m.