There's an embrace between Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche in Words and Pictures that is downright creepy in its artificiality. Seconds after sniping at the other's faults — she's an ice queen, he's a drunk — they turn to one another, hug, and let out great big laughs. Oh, it's fun to find a friend.
Writers learn early that the essence of drama is conflict and in effect, Words and Pictures is closer to words vs. pictures. In the red corner: Words, in the unshakable form of "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" and "I have a dream," the kind of ideas that art alone can't project or portray. In the blue corner: Pictures, in the evocative works of Renoir and Dalí, the sort of unbridled imagination that words could never fully describe or replicate.
Of course, a movie can't showcase those two abstracts in a fight to the death, so they need surrogates. At a prep school in Maine, literature teacher Jack Marcus (Owen) meets art instructor Dina DeSanto (Binoche) and they are instantly repelled by and attracted to each other. They're both broken souls: Nobody wants to get close to Marcus because he's such a self-destructive boozer and DeSanto won't let anyone close to her because she's suffering from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. While the affectation of character works to help establish DeSanto, must we still only see English teachers/struggling writers who drink themselves into oblivion at every turn, as though it's a career prerequisite? Just because a character may admire Dylan Thomas doesn't mean he also has no willpower.
But that's what we're left with, and as far as it goes, Clive Owen plays a pretty believable drunk. It's got his career on the ropes, his relationship with his adult son in tatters, and his crowning achievement — the school's annual literary magazine — on the chopping block. And in direct contrast to the banality of the plot here, Owen gets to recite some surprisingly powerful dialogue. It's mostly about the impact of words, but he sells it well, and it's rare to find such interesting dialogue from a character so poorly written otherwise.
What's less exciting or obvious is his draw to DeSanto. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, Words and Pictures can't convince us that words and pictures are inseparable if Marcus pushes the other teacher off the craggy cliffs of Maine, and our instincts as moviegoers tell us how this might play out. But shouldn't there be a reason for them to fall for each other? It's efficient for storytelling, yes, but not terribly convincing.
The previously mentioned rheumatoid arthritis may give Binoche a way into the words on the page, but DeSanto's own walled-off approach to her condition makes her a terribly unlikable character. She was apparently a great artist herself, now limited by her arthritis, and teaching is her only way to keep the passion going. But she doesn't seem terribly interested in teaching, or the students (save one), or anything else, really. She's mostly just bitter and frustrated.
Somehow, though, the drunk and the ice queen can look past all those red flags and impediments and see a soul mate. They can come together after so long at each other's throats, fly into each other's arms, and let out a phony, treacly laugh. If that doesn't prove the power of words and pictures, particularly in the wrong hands, nothing will.