(warning: there are spoilers in this review, like all my reviews)
Yes, I’m a writer and a sucker for teacher movies to begin with, but Words and Pictures is worth the view. Clive Owen plays a quirky English teacher (Jack Markus) at a private school (St. George’s, Vancouver) who laments his students’ lacklustre appreciation for words. He was a former literary star but can’t find the fire to write anymore. He’s also an alcoholic.
Juliette Binoche is the reluctant new art teacher (Dina Delsanto) who comes to teach at the school only because she cannot paint full time because of her rheumatoid arthritis. Her quick wit and stoic attitude matches the cane she wields, and she proves a formidable foe for Mr. Markus who declares a war of “Words vs. Pictures” in an effort to inspire his class and prove that words hold more weight than pictures. Delsanto takes up the challenge with her art class and the fun begins.
I say fun because their rivalry is fun and geeky and you know exactly where it’s headed. I learned a lot of 5+ syllable words because Mr. Markus incessantly challenges his colleagues to come up with an equal number or higher syllable word for a word he gives. “Antihistamene.” “Interdenominational”, etc. Delsanto is the only one who plays his game back (and beats him). “Feasibility.” “Anti-egalitarianism.”
But the movie had a lot more depth than mere workplace fighting/flirting. The fact that Jack isn’t the school’s literary star anymore and in danger of losing his job creates a lot of pathos. When one of the members of the school board tells him to try and “just be who you were,” Jack replies, “Nobody can.” That was probably one of my favourite lines.
Delsanto also had a great line related to her past. She forms a special bond with one of her art students and tells her that before her arthritis, she learned to paint what she can see, but because of her limitation, she’s now learning to see what she can paint. We witness her gradual journey of moving from portraiture to abstract art as she can no longer hold small brushes to do delicate strokes. She eventually fastens mops from pulleys attached to the ceiling and uses them to spread paint onto the canvas lying on the floor. The result is incredible—especially considering that Juliette Binoche painted all the pieces herself, on camera, and in just a two-month period. Talk about a talented woman. You can read more about that process here.
Words and Pictures brings up questions of education, bullying, alcoholism, limitations, inspiration, forgiveness, desperation, love, and so on. A few times throughout the movie, I remember thinking, “This is a lot sadder than I had expected.” I liked being surprised though. One critique I will make is that the ending—the “Words vs. Pictures” school-wide assembly was a little anticlimactic, especially from Mr. Markus. You’d think he’d have finally written a poem of his own, but he doesn’t. We still don’t know about the future of his job situation, but I guess that’s less important than knowing if he and Delsanto are together (which of course you do know; this is a romantic comedy after all).
Watching this movie in Vancouver and seeing shots of the Fraser River (where Delsanto’s studio is), Wendel’s Coffee Shop in Fort Langley, and St. George’s School in Vancouver added that much more enjoyment to it.
If you’re a writer or an artist, this one’s definitely for you. And even if you’re not, I think you’ll like it too.