One of the most marvelous movie-going experiences of the year, with WORDS AND PICTURES screenwriter Gerald Di Pego and director Fred Schepisi create a film that wafts over you, making the heart smile. The dialogue is smartly written and constructed, as well as intelligent and witty. And watching leads Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche is like looking at a magical meld of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious" with the loving needling they then brought decades later with "Indiscreet". The chemistry between Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche sparkles, sizzles, electrifies. They are, in a word, magic.
Jack Marcus is a seemingly washed up writer turned English professor teaching honors students. Not having published anything in years, not only is his job on the line, but his beloved literary magazine at the school which he oversees. Seems that school boards aren’t as interested in the students’ works as in the teacher’s, especially when a published professor writing for the little school magazine is a selling point to wealthy donors. Dina Delsanto is a renowned painter who hasn’t shown any new works for years. Riddled with rheumatoid arthritis, she has been unable to create the charcoal sketches and figures for which she is known and has been pushing herself to find a new rhythm, new style so that she can fuel her passion. In the meantime, however, she has taken a professorial position as the Fine Arts teacher the same school with Jack Marcus. And it only takes minutes on their first day of school together for the battle lines to be drawn. Which is more powerful - words or pictures? Delsanto’s argument is that pictures and images speak for themselves and need no words. Marcus contends that a picture speaks a thousand words. And so the two embark on what starts as a daily sparring match of word games but turns in to so much more.
As the battle between Marcus and Delsanto intensifies, so does the interest of their students, sparking an all out war of WORDS AND PICTURES with the stakes higher than anyone ever imagined. Marcus will write a poem from which Delsanto will then paint a picture with the students deciding on which is more powerful - words or pictures. With demons haunting them both, the bigger questions arise. Does Jack Marcus have an all-powerful poem still inside him? Can Dina Delsanto find a way to paint her voice with her now physical limitations?
According to Latitude Productions producer Curtis Burch, who chose WORDS AND PICTURES and the company’s debut feature, “For me, this movie isn’t about which is more powerful, words or pictures. All of us are moved by it for different reasons. The thing that drew me to it was this idea that many of us get to a point in our lives where we are disappointed with how things have turned out. We can’t do work we dreamed of doing. Both of these two people are being restricted from doing work that they love. . . Does a person’s life have worth if they can’t do the work they dreamed of doing?”
Calling WORDS AND PICTURES “a blessed collaboration” between himself, writer Gerald Di Pego and director Fred Schepisi, Burch notes that “everything on the screen is somewhat reflective of our combined taste.” Employing the once universally accepted technique of limiting the cooks in the kitchen to one hands-on executive producer, one director and one writer, Burch insured a clarity of thought and storytelling. As Schepisi notes, “It always starts with the script. If the script is good and fills you full of possibilities and does the same for the actors, that’s important, as everybody gets headed in the same direction. When you get ideas, actors get ideas and contribute things, I get ideas, then you put it back through the writer so that it stays in his voice or her voice, whatever the case. That’s important because a film has to have its own world and its own logic and style and discipline that works for that subject. You must stay true to that world.”
Important to Schepisi with WORDS AND PICTURES was to “[S]ubvert all cliches. Subvert the possible cliches. For instance, the boy who gets into trouble. He’s normally the big blonde rich kid with the very big car. That’s not who does it normally. Make it more realistic. Make it more culturally diverse, which is true of schools now. Explore all that. What’s the technology? Even in one or two years, the impact changes. . . How does that impact kids in school? How is that served? A tweet is a certain number of characters. Well, then haiku is something interesting. Let’s bring that in. . . How do you use all that? And the smart board we use so you can have the argument with the encyclopedia versus the internet. . .And then, how do we do the art? Let’s take it to a great place, but let’s also keep it accessible so that it’s not alienating; when you see it, it absolutely creates a wonderful emotion immediately. How do we do that?”
With script in hand and director on board, Burch found “The hardest part was casting the leads. . .Once Clive came on board, Juliette was everybody’s first choice.” As Jack Marcus, Clive Owen not only captivates with emotive expressive monologues and the glib witty charm of vintage Cary Grant, but he imbues Jack with a power in self-pitying drunken rages that is both mesmerizing and heartbreaking. It is a testament to Owen’s skill as an actor to find that balance in making Jack likeable against a great darkness. Similarly, Juliette Binoche elegantly and painfully captures the limitations and effects of rheumatoid arthritis. The inner darkness that each character manifests against their passion and brilliance plays like a rapier double edged sword. Watching Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche do this dance leaves one emotionally breathless and wanting more. They are like fire and ice as each brings amazing nuance to their individual and collective performances. The little sly grin that each has when they best the other one, topped by verbal exchanges and sparring is absolutely delicious; a delightful foreplay capturing the very essence that was Grant and Bergman in "Indiscreet". And shall we just note, the camera captures all and when it comes to Binoche, it loves her. She is luminous!
The ideology of a words versus pictures war is brilliant in its concept and construct; it's a debate that has raged for centuries. To see it so succinctly played out before us is simply divine. The only shortcoming to WORDS AND PICTURES lies with the supporting cast and a seeming lack of development, particularly with someone like Bruce Davison who adds such great texture. While quite often the case, scenes and dialogue of supporting characters that add that texture to a film, must be sadly left on the cutting room floor, it doesn’t lessen my desire to have seen Davison’s Walt - best friend and colleague of Jack, to be fleshed out a bit more. Same goes with Valerie Tian who really captures the heart with her take as Delsanto’s prize student, Emily. Great arc within that character as well. Emily is one of the supporting players that doesn't "stagnate"; she actually flourishes. Delicious fun is Amy Brenneman as Jack’s ex Elspeth, a woman who just happens to hold his fate in the palm of her hands thanks to being a big player on the School Board. Brenneman clearly relishes the role. In other words, there's nothing wrong with the performances. The cast is just so talented, I want to see more. Although given the structure of the story, to see more of the supporting cast would detract from the wonder of Owen and Binoche.
Working hand-in-hand with Schepisi are his long-time collaborators cinematographer Ian Baker and production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein. “Since we’ve worked together before, we kind of know what we’re doing and each is pushing the other to do it better. We put Ian into some very difficult situations at times. [laughing] That apartment that she’s in along the river, the ceiling was not even as high as those paintings [pointing to the wall at the Four Seasons]. [chortling] A little lighting challenge. But what it affords you, which he knows, is something quite unusual and texturally different plus that wonderful sense of place outside with the boats going past on the river.” Capitalizing on the play of natural light, Baker's cinematography is rich, textured. Wonderful lighting differentials for establishing tone as between the darker wood, messiness of corduroy wearing Jack Marcus and the lighter, brighter cooler edgier palette and framing of Dina Delsanto's studio and classroom. The visual tone speaks volumes as to the characters and the "war" at hand. The design of the climactic assembly metaphorically hints of Roman gladiators in a coliseum.
One look at WORDS AND PICTURES and Schepisi’s calm confidence in Baker and Von Brandenstein is more than justified. “It’s [Baker] knowing why I’m doing something and more than that, appreciating it and taking advantage of those situations. Ian and Patrizia work very strongly together. . .For example, in [Delsanto’s] studio, we built that section of it and Patrizia has built in glass of a certain height so Ian can use it like daylight and light through that. There’s this constant interchange between them when we’re doing it. They know that I’m gonna be doing one-shots at one point, but they know I’ll be doing a lot of cutting at another point when there’s not a lot of time to achieve that. Ian is constantly trying to give texture in lighting every time you go to a location or set that you’ve been on before, to give it another time of day, just other textures.” The result of this true collaborative styling delivers high production values, and visual storytelling that is effective, telling, wonderful to watch.
So key to WORDS AND PICTURES are the very pictures themselves, all of which are drawn and/or painted by Juliette Binoche. While Schepisi knew that Binoche was an artist, “What I didn’t know is the extent to which she could paint and what her talent was.” But she has to go on the same journey as a person that the character had to go on, but for different reasons. She had to go from being basically a portrait artist through to expressing herself in a whole new way. That was fun. [laughing].” Binoche’s own progress in developing new technique and style mirrors that of her character, including extensive research into the effects of RA and how it impacts the physical movements for painting. Much of the painting sequences were unrehearsed and shot live on camera capturing Binoche’s true emotion and the physicality involved in the creation of art. The result is beauteous in spirit and content.
Noting the importance of music and score within a film, Schepisi has a caveat. “I always like that the music doesn’t gild the lily; that the music tells you something that you cannot otherwise see or get or feel. Sometimes it might behave as if there’s a lot more going on here than ‘this’; there’s an undercurrent here that kind of changes what you think the scene’s about. Subtly most of the time.” According to Schepisi, “[I]n the original script [Jack Marcus] listened to jazz and [Dina Delsanto] listened to classical. And I went, nuh-uh. I listen to jazz. I listen to classical. I listen to Handel. But nobody sits there and listens to just one kind of music. So I wanted to try and get surprises in with what music they might listen to. In fact it was Clive’s suggestion that we go after David Bowie for the piece of music we use when Jack’s kind of losing it. That’s not what you expect and I thought it was a great suggestion. So we tried to use bits of music like that for him when he was having a bit of a struggle, some of which Paul Grabowsky the composer re-wrote and gave us his version of because you can’t afford too much of [the actual artists].” Not only Paul Grabowsky’s score, but the individual musical selections are perfection, further establishing character, mood and emotional tone, serving as the bridge between words and pictures as if joining the arts into a triumvirate as one.
WORDS AND PICTURES is music to my ears.
Directed by Fred Schepisi
Written by Gerald Di Pego
Cast: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Bruce Davison, Amy Brenneman, Valerie Tian