Picture imperfect

Picture imperfect

Half the fun of ‘Words and Pictures’ is watching the main characters get to where you know they’ll end up

By Michael Nordine 05/22/2014

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Romantic comedies so rarely live up to their name that exceptions to the rule feel like minor miracles. Fred Schepisi’s “Words and Pictures” is one such exception, albeit an imperfect one.
Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche star as dueling prep-school teachers whose verbal sparring over the merits of their respective disciplines is meant to evoke Shakespearean flirtation. Owen is the hip-but-troubled English teacher who levels with his students, tries to get them to care about Updike, and challenges them to write a single amazing sentence when his lesson is lost on them. The actor has a habit of breathing life into stock characters, and so it is here: there’s nothing in him we haven’t seen before, but it’s easy to forget that when he’s charming every person in the room. Binoche plays the new art teacher whose reputation as “The Icicle” precedes her, which is movie-speak for “probably just needs the love of a good man.” The two have instant chemistry and, though we know what direction their relationship will take long before they do, watching them reach that point is not at all without its charms.

At the center of their relationship is the eponymous debate over which is more important and truthful — words, represented by Owen, or pictures, represented by Binoche. “A dozen truthful words are worth a thousand pictures,” he writes as a gauntlet-throwing challenge; her response is more quietly expressive. None of this is on the same level as “Certified Copy,” which likewise found Binoche discussing art with a man she may or may not be romantically involved with, but the fact that the two are brought together by pain as much as anything else makes their courtship resonate in unique ways. He drinks too much, she has rheumatoid arthritis.

His habit ends up being more debilitating, its self-destructive nature gradually revealing his charm to be something of a defense mechanism — an attempt at hiding something he struggles with every day. These darker shades dominate the latter half of “Words and Pictures,” shifting the tone and making the film feel both more authentic and more contrived, sometimes simultaneously.

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