‘A pictures is worth a thousand words’ is the old cliché. Only Words and Pictures prefers to sharply upend all clichés and recalibrate our understanding of the fundamental link between language and imagery. It is largely a self-deconstructing argument, questioning whether one has any real ascendancy over the other. Throw a romantic subtext in there and you have the basis of a wryly funny and deeply human film.
The film revolves around two characters, each representing one side of the language/imagery dichotomy, cleaving to words or images as a kind of faith or way of life that has served them thus far. Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an English teacher and writer at Croydon College, whose convictions with his own language are fading fast as he approaches a kind of middle-ages slump in morals and personal ambition. He is divorced, has a son who resents his dependency on alcohol, and approaches his teaching with a kind of loosely formed, haphazard discipline which neatly runs rings around the principal and his clean-cut standards. Owen plays him with a beautiful combination of impulsive vigour, anarchic humour and yet a kind of heart-rending dissolution and defeat. His reckless appeal is similar to that of Michael Caine in Educating Rita. He is a half-formed man, arriving late to lessons, setting assignments yet never marking them and losing the will to write. Writer’s block opens up a new void which swallows up his creative spirit and leaves him dejected, poaching words off other writers instead of deriving his own.
Yet, for all this, Jack is eloquent, and harbours a love of language purely for its own sake. This is never so apparent than when a new teacher of Fine Art arrives on the scene. Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) is a sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis. Her artistic spirit is weakened on this score although she approaches her illness with a kind of belligerence that takes knocks and delivers them just as quickly. Whereas Jack is gregarious with his students, Dina is self-contained and fastidious with hers. Jack is obsessed with the etymology of words, of their everyday usage, their efficacy in argument, and yet Dina is a woman of few words, most of them brittle and unsentimental. Yet they both share a dry humour which translates well to the screen. His sardonic charm works well side by side with her sharp-tongued surliness. Dina may well be taciturn yet Binoche has the most wonderfully impish, brown-eyed expressions that give away her warmth at every sharp turn of phrase. A perfect take on the power of visceral body language in place of words.
The narrative develops as Jack realises, from his student’s report, that Dina is telling her own class how words are ‘lies and traps.’ Are words less powerful because images can convey an immediate message without their use? Is the greatest artistic achievement that which is ineffable, inarticulable? A war has begun at Croydon as Jack and Dina use their classrooms as sparring grounds, their students as militia sending messages back and forth to the sergeant general about what the other side is plotting. Words and pictures are ammunition as well as propaganda. Are ten truthful words worth more than a thousand fraudulent images – commercials, magazine covers and so on? Or can a thousand words of artifice– speeches of politicians namely – be put down with a few compelling images that tell otherwise?
It’s all good fun of course and, the greatest change this has wrought in Jack is that he suddenly takes more pleasure in teaching again; his lessons are invested with renewed purpose, if only to take down Dina’s lessons. His students are no longer the ‘droids’ he once taught at the beginning of term and the college magazine which he is in charge of publishing, is rejuvenated with a fresh supply of material which takes words and pictures into an everlasting spiral of contention. Yet, despite his newfound exuberance, Jack’s career at Croydon remains in jeopardy if he cannot remain as prolific as he once was on paper. This introduces another aspect of the story which is an intricate debate in its own right: are spoken words as monumental as the written word? If Jack is loquacious in the classroom yet still struggles to produce good writing on paper as a poet, are his words nothing more than ephemera, floating in and out of everyone’s attention and then lost forever?
The film largely succeeds in bridging the gap between the word and its image, as well as creating something of beauty in the chaos of that very gap itself. Just as William Blake conceded, that ‘energy’ can only arise from the ‘contrasts’ in life, there is a kind of awakening in both teachers when they are impelled to defend their own discipline and, eventually, learn that it cannot survive without the other. But, equally, both words and pictures can often fail to deliver peace at the darkest hour. Dina’s paintings are frantic and strange and her bodily illness prevents her from executing her work as fully as she imagines. Jack similarly experiences an existential drought, static at first then coming on in violent waves, which steals all his words and leaves only a desire for smashing things up in its place.
The chemistry between Binoche and Owen is the strongest aspect of Words and Pictures. However, the central theme could have been delivered with greater precision and resourcefulness. I think that it serves more as an entry point into the titular debate, as opposed to a really trenchant overview, and the tale is slightly too predicable as it inches towards closure.