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October 5, 2016

Words and Pictures

by Franz Patrick


Words and Pictures (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

The romantic comedy genre is easy to dismiss because somewhere between selling a fantasy and trying to make the viewers feel good about themselves, it is also often willing to throw logic and real emotions out the window. And so when a movie like “Words and Pictures,” written by Gerald Di Pego and directed by Fred Schepisi, comes along, ready to offer enjoyment without sacrificing brain, a sharp sense of humor, and a level of character complexity, most audiences do not know how to respond to it properly. That is how we know that when it comes to the romantic comedy genre, people are jaded.

Jack (Clive Owen) is an Honors English teacher at a prep school whose job is threatened by an upcoming evaluation. He is an alcoholic. It has affected his work and personal life so severely that even his son is keeping his distance. After he hears from his students that the new art teacher, Dina (Juliette Binoche), expressed in her class that words are nothing but lies and that emotions are raw and real, Jack starts a playful war—a battle between words and pictures. His intention is three-fold: To inspire his students to participate in their education, to get in the good graces of his evaluators, and to capture the heart and attention of the renowned artist who happens to be suffering from a disease.

We get a solid grasp of Jack and Dina’s fierce intelligence. When the camera is in the classroom, it reminded me of times when I was actually excited to learn from someone who not only know what they are doing but are very passionate about teaching. While it is obvious that their styles of interacting with their students are vastly different, it is unexpected that the students are able to connect with them both. In a way, the students are the audience in that when it is the instructor’s turn to speak, our eyes and ears focus on him or her and we are engaged.

A subplot that does not quite mesh well with the material involves an incident between two students. While still connected to the picture’s roots, the conflict comes across forced and artificial. It is so heightened and urgent that it takes attention away from the two so-called warring factions. The subplot of interest does not last for very long but it does leave quite an impression.

The romance between the art and English instructors have validity. Binoche and Owen are so good at expressing themselves—whether it be through words or body language—that they provide us something new about their characters in just about every scene. Such is a rarity in modern romantic comedies and so it must be highlighted. Although there are no flashbacks, I enjoyed that I was able to imagine their characters when they were young, how they might have been like then. The screenplay is also not shy in providing hints that Jack and Dina are growing older. Given their imperfections, will they be able to sustain a meaningful and fruitful relationship?

Though it has a few formulaic elements embedded in the marrow of its genre, “Words and Pictures” engages because it abstains from spelling everything out for the audience. Some people will claim that this film is for smart adults. I do not agree completely. I think this movie is for anybody who has substance, anybody who can appreciate conflicting details about a person. It is a character study, in a way, of opposite personalities and perspectives with a common thread: one’s yearning to understand others outside their own.

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