"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 he is spiraling out of control from alcoholism.
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 argue.
This argument is bogus, in that there is no reason anyone needs to choose, but the movie, to its credit, seems to acknowledge that.
So the setup is odd: A raging alcoholic, with the wheels coming off the cart, 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 built around two 50-year-olds.
Binoche is remarkable, at least as beautiful as she was 25 years ago. Owen is fascinating in other ways.
Audiences will walk away from this movie thinking, "What was that?" But they will walk away thinking.