The second of my two free, sneak-preview movies this week was Words and Pictures; a romantic dramedy starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche.
It would be patronizing and politically incorrect to call it a “chick flick” so I shall eschew such a characterization. Truth be told, that wouldn’t create an accurate impression anyway. The movie is pleasant; no more than that but certainly no less. I can’t use the adjectives that are usually assigned to this genre. It is not “charming”. It is not “heartwarming”. And no one is going to describe it as the ‘feel good movie of the summer’. It is more real than that. That would have been taking the easy way out.
Clive Owen, looking every bit the scruffy-sexy intellectual, is a teacher at an exclusive New England prep school. He is a published author and has, in the past, been an inspiring teacher. The Walt Whitman references are a little too spot-on in evoking The Dead Poets Society but he cares about teaching and cares about language and the power of words. Unfortunately, he is also an alcoholic, divorced, estranged from his adult son, abandoned by the muse as a writer, and coasting through his teaching. He is spiralling downward and his job is in jeopardy.
Binoche, as warm and as beautiful in her maturity as she was in her youth, plays a very successful painter. A highly collectible artist, for those who can afford her work, she has come to the school to teach art because her advancing rheumatoid arthritis makes it difficult to paint. She is still very much in touch with her muse. She can see the paintings in her head but her body limits her ability to realize her vision on the canvas.
He is an artist with words who is unable to write. She is an artist of pictures who is unable to paint. He finds her aloof. She finds him annoying. How could anything but romance ensue?
The plot is fairly predictable. In his desperation he is plummeting toward rock bottom. In her frustration she is cutting herself off from everyone who might care for her. In the end they must each save themselves to save each other. The ending is optimistic if not entirely happy.
What makes this movie better than the run of the mill romance it could easily have become are the performances of Owen and Binoche. He unflinchingly shows us the pain brought about by his self-destructiveness. Her increasing frustration as she struggles to recapture the skills needed to match her creative vision is palpable. I am not sure the material warrants performances this good but Owen and Binoche deliver them. And, in doing so, they elevate Words and Pictures from a romance we’ve seen a hundred times before to a thoroughly pleasant way to spend an afternoon.