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Words and Pictures

By MICK LASALLE San Francisco Chronicle

This article was published June 20, 2014 at 2:36 a.m.

Words and Pictures

82 Cast: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Bruce Davison, Amy Brenneman

Director: Fred Schepisi

Rating: PG-13, for sexual material including nude sketches, language and some mature thematic material

Running time: 111 minutes

Words and Pictures is a strange one. It has some unusual, interesting elements, as well as other things that are simply off. Yet the ways in which it's off are interesting, too.

The story is about a meeting of two personalities at a private prep school, a literature teacher and a well-known artist. Clive Owen plays the teacher, Jack, who is lively and mercurial but also skewed in personality. To be in his presence for more than a minute is to realize there is something wrong with him, that he's loud and carries on, but he doesn't connect. We soon realize that he is spiraling out of control from alcoholism. He's not quite at the stage where he's pouring vodka on his Wheaties, but he's close.

Juliette Binoche is Dina, a famous painter who takes a job teaching art at the prep school because she needs to be close to family. She is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, which is a rich character detail, and an unusual one, too.

Jack immediately seizes on Dina as someone to tease, cajole and get a rise out of. She remains aloof but also vaguely interested, probably because he's the only one in town who seems to have a pulse. Much of the movie concerns an obsession of Jack's about the relative value of words and pictures. He asserts that literature is more important than visual art and tries to enlist Dina to take the other side of the argument.

This argument is bogus, in that there is no reason anyone needs to choose, but the movie, to its credit, seems to acknowledge that. It also makes clear to the audience that while Jack may be a poet of some small renown, Dina is an international talent, so comparing his words with her pictures might not be a fair fight anyway.

So the setup is odd: A raging alcoholic, with the wheels coming off the cart -- a man who is the biggest noise in a small town -- meets his match in a beautiful woman his own age, who is more successful than he is and at least as smart. Is the movie comparing his drunkenness with her illness? That parallel, if there is one, doesn't make sense. Yet the movie traces their interaction pretty honestly, and there is something refreshing and unusual about a screen romance (of sorts) built around two 50-year-olds.

Binoche is remarkable, at least as beautiful as she was 25 years ago and radiant with substance and purpose. Just the scenes of her alone painting are mesmerizing, because Binoche leaves us in no doubt that Dina is a major artist, plugged into some authentic universal current. Maybe she is. It turns out those paintings are Binoche's.

Owen is fascinating in other ways. A movie like this usually depends on our belief that the hero's recovery is possible, but Owen makes Jack into such a mess that he casts everything into the zone of ambiguity. Does Owen know this? Perhaps he does and is intentionally subverting the film. Or perhaps he and director Fred Schepisi know this, and they're intentionally subverting the screenplay. Or perhaps screenwriter Gerald Di Pego was in on it, too, and really wanted to write the most covertly feel-bad romance of the decade.

MovieStyle on 06/20/2014

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