When Shakespeare Met Rembrandt…, by David Bax
Fred Schepisi’s Words and Pictures is, like so many of his films, a sturdy and workmanlike affair. Yet it pulses faintly with purpose, a verve that occasionally overwhelms the programmatic familiarity of the story. Perhaps that thrum of intensity has to do with the fact that this movie has something in common with Six Degrees of Separation, arguably the director’s best film; namely, a preoccupation with art.
Clive Owen plays Jack Marcus, who was once a poet of some note but hasn’t published a thing in six years save for the literary magazine of the posh prep school where he toils as the increasingly less renowned English teacher. His fading star, matched with the drinking problems that have made him problematically notorious in the small town near the school, have led him to the brink of losing his job. When Juliette Binoche’s Dina Delsanto, a famed artist whose early onset arthritis has put a hold on her career, shows up as the new honors art instructor and insists that “words are lies,” Marcus declares a school-wide “war” between words and pictures (hey, the title!) that is as much about reclaiming his passion as it is an ostentatious ploy to save his livelihood.
Each of the two leads is barricaded from their own mode of expression, he by drink and she by disease. It’s possible that the contrived “war” premise feels fake because it’s as manufactured as any trick for overcoming writer’s block (or painter’s block), like drinking water backwards out of a cup to expel hiccups. If so, the film takes the honest route, never pretending that this false battle is the actual point, treating it more digestibly as a means to an end. The house into which Dina moves is on the river and contains on its property a ruined dock, the beams of which are fractured and warped in a way that is nearly beautiful. Deconstructed to its individual planks, the method and possibility of its reconstruction is made plain, as shattered as it is. Owen and Binoche play their roles in the same way as the dock. Neither is coy or understated in displaying her or his character’s weakness. Their blunt self-awareness is what makes their potential salvation palpable.
However much as Jack and Dina have faith in the axioms of their chosen mediums, that’s how much the screenplay believes in the power of its time-worn tropes. The way they needle each other at the beginning, they may has well be Harry and Sally. Do you think they might get together? And do you think they might learn that words and pictures each have their own powers and can work in concert? Even that inevitable conclusion rings a bit hollow, given that the film tips its hand and reveals itself to be on Jack’s side by having way more fun with its dialogue than its imagery. The less said about the film’s music, the better.
It’s not as if Schepisi has a bland eye. He moves his camera in deliberately gliding motions, calling attention to the frame and letting you know that he’s in control. But when compared to the words spoken, including powerful quotes from poems and plays and speeches as well as word games to see who can conjure the most syllables, the visual elements are almost never any fun. Only one sequence stands out, a section where the camera tracks back and forth along the ceiling, mimicking Dina’s view from her therapeutic rowing machine. It’s a hint of what might have been.
Words and Pictures has plenty to recommend it. The cast (which also includes Bruce Davison and Amy Brenneman) is superb and it’s nearly enough just to hear them bat the dialogue back and forth for a couple hours. And it doesn’t hurt that the actual poetry and art we see produced by our leads stands up to scrutiny. But after two or three scenes that feel lifted from Dead Poets Society and the disappointing predictability of the ending, it’s hard not to wish Schepisi had taken a cue from the one-upsmanship of his main characters and pushed himself to be a little bit better.