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Words and Pictures | Review

Word Play: Schepisi’s Formulaic Romance Elevated by Lead Performances

Fred Schepisi Words and Pictures PosterAustralian director Fred Schepisi gets a lot of mileage out of his headlining duo at the center of his latest film, Words and Pictures, which otherwise plays like a formulaic romantic drama that yields little surprise even as it attempts to inspire creative conversation. But, then again, Schepisi’s films often are attributed with inspired casting choices, featuring compelling performances from seasoned thespians. Here, the end result is a sometimes winning endeavor, though ungainly subplots tend to detract from rather than enhance the film’s central relationship. Likewise, Gerald Di Pego’s screenplay, while cutting and witty when contending with its adults, falters miserably in its depiction of student dynamics.

The anonymous quote, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” is the catalyst for a debate amongst a group of high school students as goaded by an eccentric, alcoholic English teacher, Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) against newly arrived ice queen Art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). Recently informed by his boss (David Negahban) and ex-flame Elspeth (Amy Brenneman) that a committee would be meeting to discuss his future at the school due to increasingly unruly behavior (including getting barred from the town’s formidable high class restaurant), Marcus decides he has to do whatever it takes to enliven the school’s failing literary mag (which leads him to make some rather questionable ethical decisions). The arrival of famed artist Delsanto, driven to teaching because of her debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, Marcus takes an instant liking to her and attempts to engage her in a war between their mutual students, meant to prove which has more merit, words or pictures.

If there’s any resounding reason to see Words and Pictures it’s for a fantastic performance from Juliette Binoche, looking resplendent and radiant as the prickly Dina Delsanto. It’s the type of performance that elevates what could have easily been a completely unlikeable character, and yet she breathes a thrilling energy into the material as an artist whose world has been dominated by her crippling rheumatoid arthritis. Of note is the fact that Binoche’s own artwork is on display, perhaps furthering her ability to convince. As an alcoholic Honors English teacher on his last leg, Owen is a likeable, if familiar character—intelligent, handsome, and bombastic. But he shares a noticeable chemistry with Binoche’s hard-to-love painter, which manages to turn the transparency of their words vs. pictures faux war into something of an endearing spar. Their onscreen chemistry is so engaging that Schepisi’s trepidation when things get physical seems uncharacteristically conservative.

Where Words and Pictures really grates is when it bothers exploring the students’ relationships with the teachers or between themselves. One student is harassed for her race and sex, which culminates into an awkward scenario that does little to enhance the plot, its clumsy resolution not quite addressing the serious issues at hand.

Adult supporting characters are a mixed bag, with Bruce Davison as a likeable friend, while Amy Brenneman comes across as absolutely ridiculous, forced to harp incessantly at Owen about new pieces of poetry as his only saving grace at the school. While it’s not as sharply observed as one wishes it could have been, the film manages to be worthwhile for the excellent Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen, whose discussion of words vs. pictures resolutely proves that it’s not a one or the other scenario.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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