As an avid movie-goer, my general preference is for big-budget blockbusters. There’s something about the spectacle of a highly anticipated movie that appeals to me that a smaller, independent or low-budget film can’t compete with. But over the past few years, I’ve attempted to see more independent films, such as Little Miss Sunshine, Moon, and more recently, Chef and The Railway Man, because films like these do have a place in the market and deserve a chance to shine (though, there is still some debate as to whether these can even be termed “independent,” as their budgets are still far larger than most films that never see past a small festival somewhere in hodunk Kansas). What I’ve come to appreciate in these types of films is the passion that seeps through the celluloid and makes them more artistically aware than their high-dollar counterparts. Part of this comes from a respect the filmmakers give to their characters, which heightens the subtle textures of meaning the filmmakers are seeking to convey; the essence of which embodies the new film, Words and Pictures, a thoughtful examination behind the merits of the written word versus visual artistry.
When it comes to choosing whether or not to see a lower-budget film (or indie darling), usually it comes down to what actors are in the film (yeah, I know, I’m a bit of snob that way). But on occasion, such as with films like God’s Not Dead, it’s the subject matter that draws me in, and it was the idea that drew me into the theater for Words and Pictures. I have nothing against Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche; they are both superb actors. But when it comes down to it, they aren’t the type of actor I am generally drawn to, and if it wasn’t for the debate over the validity of the different art forms, this one just may have passed me by. Luckily, it didn’t.
Owen plays Jack Marcus, an honors literature teacher at a prestigious, upper-class high school. Disheveled and weary, Jack is a man on the brink of extinction. The magazine he publishes for the school is about to be stopped and he himself is looking at termination for a variety of drunken antics that have landed him in hot water. He’s lost and alone, and hides a deeply-ingrained pain behind a mask of pompous arrogance. Enter Dina Delsanto (Binoche), a famous artist who has had to take a teaching role because her fight with arthritis has left her a uninspired shell. When Dina tells her students that Jack’s words are full of lies, Jack takes it as a challenge and starts a war to see what art form is more worthy of respect.
What struck me initially about these two characters was the way in which they are introduced. Where Jack’s troubles are only discussed verbally by others (words), Dina’s troubles are external, injuries that cannot be hidden from the world (pictures). Jack can hide his pain; Dina cannot. And it’s in this subtle comparison that gives these characters a much richer depth than just a simple characterization — both are physical embodiments of the art form they love so much, and will defend at all costs.
But it’s more than that. Each of them have lost their way and are looking for a way back to who they once were — someone who could inspire others through their work. So, when the war is waged, it’s not only about finding a new energy within themselves, and in turn, their work, but in the students that they have so far failed to energize. The war of words versus pictures gives the students something to care about, to strive for, which then gives Jack and Dina the vitality to do what they love the most… and so on until the entire flock has become the body of work the masters have so desperately wanted to mold, and where the pain of circumstance becomes the fuel to recovery.
Having been a student of both art and writing, I really enjoyed the battle of which is more important: the spoken language or the visual language. I respect both points of view and can understand why someone who has spent their life and careers studying one specific discipline can defend their perspective so vehemently. The artistic essence of a picture can, as they say, speak a thousand words; but so much can be said with just a handful of words. The craft of each couldn’t be more varied, but at the same time, they are both considered art, and in that way, can both inspire people to become better, and yet cause extreme pain and harm just as easily.
The irony is, for a film that spends so much time debating the merits of different types of art, there isn’t anything artistically profound within the way the film is crafted. The visual style of director Fred Schepisi is extremely safe and familiar while the script is overly predictable and feels like just another ordinary, cookie-cutter romance. Underneath all of the bravado and references that writer Gerald Di Pego includes to point out why one art form is better than the next — or isn’t necessarily better than any other (even including a moment when Jack sends Dina music to articulate his emotion, nicely adding one more artistic layer to the mix) — is a voice that speaks louder than words. Without that, all we’re left with is an interesting soliloquy of thought without any innovation.
With that said, the chemistry between Owen and Binoche, and they to their students, is strong enough to elevate the film to a higher level, one that allows the film to feel light and breezy while giving the viewer plenty of dramatic food for thought. I may not have chosen to see the movie because of Owen and Binoche, but it was they who gave me reason to believe in Words and Pictures.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include Earth To Echo, Tammy and Deliver Us From Evil. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.