TIFF Review: Words and Pictures

Jack Marcus’s problem isn’t his drinking: his affinity for downing a whole twenty-sixer of vodka in three gulps is only a manifestation of how messy his life has become. Once an award-winning writer and teacher, he has grown jaded and complacent. His job teaching honours English at a rigorously academically-minded private school is on the line, and his relationship to his son is damaged. Jack’s only real joy in life is words, and his reverence for their power. That is, until Dina makes an entrance.

Dina Delsanto, a gifted painter, has lost confidence in her abilities due to loss of mobility and dexterity in her struggle with rheumatoid arthritis. When Dina (Juliette Binoche) assumes a position teaching honours Arts at the school where Jack (Clive Owen) is employed, she warns her students on her first day with them, “I’m not here to be your friend; I’m not interested in the details of your personal lives, nor should you be interested in mine.” The antisocial Dina continues to tell them that “Words are all lies; they are traps. There is only truth in pictures.” Her students convey this message to Jack, and before long, he and Dina clash egos in a heated rivalry that has both of them determined to prove to their students that their medium of choice is superior.

Jack is intoxicated by Dina; Dina finds Jack annoying, and initially finds this war between them inane. Once Jack shares a poem that beautifully demonstrates words’ impact with their students, Dina exhorts them to paint images to capture the essence of what his language conveys, and thus begins a formal recognition of the war between the two that energizes their pupils, and makes them both voyeurs and active participants in this philosophical conundrum over the importance of words vs. pictures. As this conflict intensifies, it evolves into a charged, passionate flirtation, and gives foothold to a series of events drawing out their insecurities and inner demons.

A fabulously plotted, hilarious screenplay; tense chemistry between Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen; and a gentle, subtle timing in Fred Schepisi’s direction make Words and Pictures a smart, insightful, and compelling entry to the romantic comedy genre. The film is such a delightful, easily digestible watch that its successful effort to intellectually stimulate and force you to question what makes art powerful just gently creeps up on you. Words inform pictures; pictures inform words. But the best art, like Words and Pictures, finds, maximizes and captures the potential power in the harmony of the two.