Words and Pictures has a pretty creaky storyline, but who cares when actors Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche are so sublime together? Even though the film creates an artificial construct that rings hollow, the two central characters generate great heat and interest. Their presence is enough to keep the film's nattering foolishness at bay.
Jack Marcus (Owen) teaches honors English at a private prep school. Many years ago, he wrote a great novel, but he hasn't produced anything since, unless you count the school's literary magazine. The students adore him, but the faculty members know him as a dyspeptic alcoholic, prone to psychological game-playing and embarrassing public displays. Just when Jack's hanging onto his job by his fingernails, in walks the new art teacher Dina Delsanto (Binoche). Dina is also abrasive, but her bad humor stems from the arthritis that causes great pain. She is a painter who can no longer use the conventional tools of her trade, so she glumly embraces a teaching job.
The two spar verbally in the sort of flirtatious charade in which damaged people often engage. Then comes the artifice that propels the rest of the movie. The teachers shove their students into a school-wide competition designed to prove which is more important: words or pictures. It's a silly competition, and you'd think that would be obvious to Australian filmmaker Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark), who works in a medium that depends on both words and pictures. Meanwhile, student dramas swirl, faculty members tiff, Jack makes feeble attempts to repair his relationship with his grown son, and the provenance of a poem he has written comes into question. Most interesting, however, is Dina's struggle to find new ways of getting her paints onto a massive canvas.
Amid all the words and pictures, Jack and Dina form a tentative bond, which is then tested in the harsh light of day. Despite a dodgy accent, Owen unleashes great charm. Jack is his own worst enemy and a man no one can fully despise. Binoche enthralls as a "difficult" woman who comes with a barbed tongue and a failing body.