Just a few minutes into Fred Schepisi's romantic comedy Words and Pictures, it's clear he's pulling from old-school Hollywood romance, the kind where Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn played headstrong could-be-lovers too stubborn to instantly cave to their shared and fateful attraction. Unfortunately, with this old fashioned hate-to-love tale, Schepisi also brings along tired sexist ideology of boys-will-be-boys that makes his comedy more infuriating than fun.
Words and Pictures stars Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as teachers Jack "Mr. Marks" Marcus and Dina Delsanto, who work at the same school but come from very different perspectives. Both are artists who were once highly regarded, but now risk irrelevance. He's a writer/high-functioning alcoholic who passionately (though haphazardly) teaches a high school class on literature and composition. She is a painter, crippled by arthritis, who has reluctantly taken up teaching art in a small town to be close to her sister. He's beloved by his students for his outrageous behavior and rebellious attitude; she inspires her students by challenging them sternly to do their best and be satisfied with nothing less. He believes in the power of words. She believes in the power of pictures. Life has disappointed both. Yet their passion draws them together in spite of their differences.
Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche share a fantastic chemistry that crackles with the promise of uninhibited sex and broiling battles of wit. Even with a scruffy beard and relentlessly frumpy clothing, Owen exudes an easy sex appeal and salty arrogance. As for Binoche, her teacher is devotedly unfriendly, but that doesn't mean uncaring. The skilled actress deftly paints a portrait of a woman of passion, integrity and drive. When she begins to MacGyver new techniques that will allow her to paint without the use of her pain-ravaged hands, we cheer for her! But Mr. Marks--as the kids fondly call him--has no such drive to rediscover his muse. Pressed to publish something new or lose his job, he cheats and lies to maintain his position. It's a risky plot point that could turn the audience against him, and in my case it absolutely did.
Schepisi wants to convince us of that old rom-com cliché that each of these characters is a flawed human being, but equally so. The expectation is that their ragged edges will fill together to make them both whole; they will make each other better people. But the sins committed by our leads don’t match up. Mr. Marks reveals himself to be a coward, a liar, a cheat, and a drunken and destructive buffoon. Delsanto's greatest sin is that she is a "cold bitch," not coating her students in praise or warming instantly to Mr. Marks's belligerent attempts at flirtation. Their attraction I understood, as both are very good-looking and passionate people. But as Delsanto begins to heal herself through innovation and art, I couldn't help but wonder why she'd bother with this trainwreck of a man, no matter how much he looks like Clive Owen.
This problem grows worse with a subplot of teen foils, a rowdy class clown who aggressively throws himself at an introverted art student. He showers her with crude compliments, fetishizing her Asian heritage in his would-be wooing. He pushes her to tears with his public assaults of supposed adoration. When this doesn't work, he threatens her. "Date me or else." After this last rejection, he turns to vicious, slut-shaming cyber-bullying, and the teachers are forced to take sides. What would be a deeply traumatizing event for a teen girl is quickly shunted to the side so these to can bicker about their own issues and the tiresome debate about words versus pictures.
Perhaps we were meant to think Mr. Marks is not so bad, compared to this horrid boy. Instead, I saw the latter's forms of bullying as less sophisticated versions of what Mr. Marks himself tries, repeatedly invading the space and home of Delsanto after she has firmly rejected him. Ultimately, Mr. Marks is not just macho and old-fashioned; he's a bully. It made me feel angry and ill. When he finally makes changes in his own life, too much damage had been done by my count. I'd grown cold on this so-called love story, so his flowery words of redemption and contriteness fell on deaf ears.
Forget words. Forget pictures. Consider actions.
By the end, Words and Pictures felt like a trap. It lured me in with its charming leads, and lulled me into a cushy happiness with its initial banter and hardheaded flirtations. But the script by Gerald Di Pego develops Mr. Marks to be not a flawed man, but a bad one. And as we barrel to the inevitable reunion and "happy" ending, I was filled with dread. Am I really meant to believe that being an unfriendly and uncompromising woman is on the same level as being a public drunk, a bad father, a professional cad and a womanizer? The final lines where they gleefully call each other names like "drunk" and "bitch" are meant to be heartwarming, but my stomach turned.