Words and Pictures – Day Six at the Sarasota Film Festival

Students – and viewers – pick a side. Actually we viewers don’t have to pick a side (we root for both of them) in the battle between an English Honors teacher Jack Markus (Academy Award Nominee Clive Owens) and the Arts Honors teacher Dina Delsanto (Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche). The film is the Fred Schepisi helmed Words and Pictures.

Now no one is going to claim that Owens and Binoche are up there with the legendary film combos like Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn, or Rosalind Russell/Cary Grant, or even Julia Roberts/Richard Gere. But there’s definitely some major chemistry between them and you’re going to like what you see.

Jack Marcus is a published author and poet now teaching at an upscale school called The Croydon Preparatory Academy or Croydon Prep. The location is supposed to New England, but Vancouver is where the film was shot.

Jack’s got issues like writers block, lack of inspiration, and the school’s Headmaster and President of the Board (played by Amy Brennerman) think that Jack has been mailing it in rather than inspiring his students.

After all, he’s chronically late, is behind in grading the students’ papers, and has not put out a new issue of the school’s literary magazine in some time. You see, Jack is aware of his failings which has led to him having a drinking problem.

Enter Binoche as Dina Delsanto, a world-class painter . Here’s how their initial meeting went:

Jack: What do you teach? Dina; Honors, Art Jack: Hence the scarf Dina: You? Jack: Honors, English Dina: Hence the... hence

Jack: What do you teach?
Dina: Honors, Art
Jack: Hence the scarf
Dina: You?
Jack: Honors, English
Dina: Hence the… hence

She is suffering with Rheumatoid Arthritis – a death knell for an artist’s hands. Yet later we find that she paints with mechanical aids, or tools, even a mop. Her fine art has become the broad-stroked based abstract rather than impressionist. But even if she has trouble dressing, she is not giving up.

So we have two damaged people. As this is a romantic comedy drama, of course they will fall in love, only it won’t come easy. Because first, they have to go to war. Not with stick and stones to break bones, but with an intellectual battle royal over which is more important – the word or the picture.

They duel in words as Jack likes playing a game:

Markus: I say a five syllable word that starts with ‘A’. You say a five syllable word that starts with ‘B’. We go on until some one is stumped. An-ti-his-ta-mine.

Delsanto: blah blah, blah-blah…

Markus: Only four syllables – my point.

This ‘banter’ continues through out the film. It is clever and witty, and while it may not always have the same kind of crackle and pop like that of a classic Spencer and Katherine sparring match – it is both fine tuned, and beautifully paced. Kudo’s to screenwriter Gerald Di Pego.

Take this example in words and pictures – first the pop-in:



Then the reaction:

Is he insane?

Is he insane?

The counter reaction:

[finger snap]

[finger snap]

Followed by a summation

It means he likes you Dina

It means he likes you, Dina

The students side with each of them. A school wide challenge is mounted to be decided at an assembly in the school auditorium. And that’s enough words for the set up.

To be honest, I loved this film. No, it doesn’t depart from the broad strokes of  a film romance. But it has enough ups and downs, and plenty of rocks strewn in the path of love that make it both believable and quite enjoyable. I have another word in mind, but I’ll save it for the close.

Owens gives us a brilliant Markus; a remarkable scholar of the language, he can quote from the Constitution, or John Updike or Shakespeare to name just a few. He knows the etymology of every word we speak, and what’s more he knows words that we’ve never heard before.  But he is slovenly and doesn’t take care of himself. After being banned from The Huntsman, the town’s main watering hole, he makes nice with the restaurant’s owner and gets re-instated. But it doesn’t last; he falls off the wagon again. He’s also estranged from his son. And he’s facing the fact that his job is in jeopardy. And he’s in denial.

Much of the art in the film is indeed Binoche’s real life art.

Whether she’s using a broad brush, or paint that falls from hoses on pulley’s suspended from the ceiling, or paint spray guns, or whether she wields a brush or rolls on a chair to deliver the paint, she seems at home.

She also effectively captures the look of some one who is dealing with the pain of her disease, as well as some one who must deal with a character as annoying as Jack Marcus. Though she won’t show Jack a smile in the early going, her beauty is always just beneath the surface, but never hidden. We wonder if she will find her way, and we hope she will.

Jack: Here's a word for you - Arrogant -

Jack: Delsanto, here’s a word for you – Arrogant –

Dina: And here's a picture for you [she makes the audible raspberry sound and juts out her ass - the equivalent of a fart]

Dina: And here’s a picture for you [she makes the audible raspberry sound and juts out her ass – the equivalent of a fart]

But Jack is not going to stop her or change her mind. She believes that pictures are the most important as well as the first form of communication, citing the cave paintings made by the cave-dwellers. Jack of course is at the ready pointing out that instead of grunts – words for fire, arrows, hunting , and food were formed.

There’s the side stories of Jack’s estrangement from his son, a previous romance with Brennerman’s School Board President, and the fact that in a drunken stupor he nearly wreck his house. Delsanto on the other hand, does her best to be aloof, and cold towards most people, students are the exception, even to the point of her being called an icicle that refuses to melt. Jack doesn’t give up, or give in easily either.

After a thaw, after all she is a human who says – all we need is food, clothes, shelter, and sex – words are optional – that catches Jack’s attention. He appears armed with flowers:

Jack: "Come in", she said, suddenly smiling a broad welcoming grin...

Jack: “Come in”, she said, suddenly smiling a broad welcoming grin…

A frowning Dina ------ [silence]

A frowning Dina ——

But even a spot of heavy breathing doesn’t mean they have a future. Their individual issues must be resolved, as well as the overriding thematic issue of words vs pictures. For me the decision was easy – Delightful (there’s the word I promised). I’m rating the film at four point five and recommending it heartily. The theatrical release date is May 23rd, 2014.