A battle between the arts dominates ‘Words and Pictures’

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For 21st Century Media

Which is a more valuable artistic medium — the written word or the visual image? This is the debate that animates the new film, “Words and Pictures.”
The film is set at Croyden Academy, a fictitious upscale Maine prep school. In an opening scenes, we are introduced to our co-protagonists and their frailties as they each prepare for a day at work.
Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is a once-celebrated writer, who was published by the august “Atlantic Monthly.” He has become a functional alcoholic. As we see early on and throughout the film, he carries a thermos full of liquor with him. He has grown fallow as an author, but loves teaching.
Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) is an abstract artist, who has achieved acclaim in the New York market. She has become crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. Unfortunately, Dina’s physicians have been unable to concoct a pharmaceutical regimen that her body can tolerate. She is racked with near-constant pain and needs a crutch just to ambulate. Dina can barely hold a brush. She has been newly hired to teach at Croyden Academy.
Upon meeting in the teacher’s lounge, their initial exchange is snippy. When Jack asks what Dina teaches, she responds Honors Art. Jack snidely quips, “Hence the scarf.” In response to Jack’s pompous declaration that he teaches Honors English, Dina retorts, “Hence the hence.” Jack then challenges her to one of his word games. Dina rebuffs his overtures, peering intently at her lesson plans. It is clear that they are a study in contrasts.
Jack is a popular teacher, who deconstructs the traditional barriers with students. We see him engaged in an impromptu soccer game with them. With colleagues, he is an overbearing and obnoxious blowhard. Jack ignores their studious disinterest and demands that they participate in word games, at which he excels. Following a drunken incident, Jack has been barred from the town’s tony dining spot. His besotted antics have also driven a wedge between Jack and his twenty-something son. In short, his life is a mess.
Dina is an emotionally phlegmatic woman, who is been dubbed the icicle. On the first day of class, her art students ask what prompted her to move to their New England enclave. Dina claims that she doesn’t understand their curiosity on her personal life. She brusquely adds that has absolutely no interest in theirs. Ouch!
Of course, Jack and Dina are both ardent advocates of their respective disciplines. Jack claims that a few well-chosen words are worth a thousand pictures. Dina’s rejoinder is that words are nothing more than lies and traps. Before long, their personal debate escalates into a raging school-wide debate. A year-end assembly is scheduled to resolve the issue.
When “Words and Pictures” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, it was assailed aggressively, even savagely, by some critics. I was puzzled by these attacks. After all, here is a film immersed in words and images. Isn’t that subject matter, which film critics are predisposed to love? Now that I have seen the film, I have a better-honed sense of the negative reaction to it.
The contrived screenplay by Gerald DiPego suggests that both Jack and Dina would be a well-matched couple. After all, they are both wounded, vulnerable creatures. Whether or not you like Dina’s cold and aloof persona, she is an inherently honorable individual.  For all of his putative charms and veneration of the creative arts, Jack commits indefensible acts of deceit, perfidy, and cultural vandalism.
The film also creates an equivalency of victimhood between rheumatoid arthritis and alcoholism. While Dina is struggling to overcome her auto-immune disorder, Jack is wallowing self-indulgently in his booze addiction.
The film marshals quotes from William Shakepeare, Ivan Turgenev, Marcel Proust, James Agee and various other masters of Western literature. However, a collection of such perspicacious observations is no substitute for a well-crafted dialogue.
“Words and Pictures” explores an interesting premise.  However, its lofty aspirations are subverted by a dubious iconography.

“Words and Pictures”
★★★ PG-13 (for sexual material including nude sketches, language and some mature thematic material) 116 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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