It is unusual to see a film about ideas; it is rare to see a film about ideas that is also a joy to watch. And, I can’t remember the last movie I saw that was more pleasurable to me as pure entertainment – touching both head and heart – than Words and Pictures.
For over 20 years, surveying depictions of teachers in popular culture has been a special research area of mine (resulting in published articles, book chapters, the book The Hollywood Curriculum: Teachers in the Movies, and the co-authored book Teacher TV: Sixty Years of Teachers on Television).
Let’s just say that I have seen a great many movies about teachers and have spent a lot of time thinking about the conventions that define what I have argued is an established film genre.
Words and Pictures is now one of my favorite teacher movies. Far from falling back on typical representations of “good” teachers who fit a conventional model, Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) and Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) are complex, flawed characters – just like real people.
Marcus represents words, an English teacher and poet whose alcoholism has put his job in jeopardy despite the fact that he can be inspiring in the classroom. Delsanto represents pictures, a celebrated artist whose painful rheumatoid arthritis demands adjustments in her process and, perhaps, the end of her ability to sell paintings.
The chemistry between Owen and Binoche flashes and crackles, and both performances are alternately powerful and nuanced as the story demands. There are a few pacing problems early on, but that’s a minor quibble. Once the war is on between the two to prove which is superior, words or pictures, and students become involved in producing work to make arguments on behalf of their mentors, the film gains considerable speed.
There is no sentimentality here of the type that is often found in teacher movies. Jack Marcus is an out of control drunk, and Dina Selsanto has an icy exterior that is as tough and uncompromising as the debilitating disease that takes her off course. Even so, their attraction is as authentic as it is ill-advised.
What happens? Go and see for yourself…go and enjoy the acting…go and engage with the ideas…go and be entertained…