Painting with Words and Pictures

Two art forms battle it out in a new film from one of Australia's most successful directors, Fred Schepisi.
Painting with Words and Pictures
Juliette Binoche as Dina in Words and Pictures

Both the celebrity director and the star of Words and Pictures have a deep relationship with painting, one of the twin subjects of their new film. Words and Pictures, directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen, is a story of two artists adapting to different ways to live, learn and love.

Academy-Award winner Binoche is Dina, a painter becoming increasingly crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. But Binoche not only plays the artist; she is also the real-life painter of the dramatic canvases in the film. The film tells the story of her encounter with Jack (Clive Owen), a writer and teacher struggling to come to terms with his own internal demons. Dina mediates the world through pictures, Jack through words and the conflict between them weaves through the school where they work and their own personal relationships.

In the tradition of Dead Poets Society, which brought poetry to a whole new audience, Words and Pictures brings the power of inspirational teachers to the screen and in doing so reminds audiences of the transformational power of art. Schepisi, whose credits include Plenty, Roxanne and Six Degrees of Separation, was drawn immediately to the powerful script and screenwriting of Gerald DiPego, partly because painting is an important part of his own artistic inspiration.

'Right from when I started, my director of photography and I would hang out in museums. We used to look at the light in paintings, the composition, the textures, and we would often joke to one another when we were setting up a shot, "this is a Rousseau, this is a Monet", as a way of inspiring ourselves,' he said.
Binoche was also able to call on her personal passions in the film. While approached for her acting talents alone, the fact that she too is a visual artist with great talent deepened her approach to the role. She took on the challenge of creating her character's artworks herself and in doing so, she not only had to paint masterfully and originally as her character would, she also had to embody Dina's physical challenges and consider how they might affect her painting.
Binoche said: 'There's an equilibrium of finding a way for her to paint, because it's quite physical, and telling the story that she's going through difficulties. There was a whole range of trying to make sense for the role and the story and yet be that artist that she is.'
Producer Curtis Burch said, 'Juliette had to find ways, both as an actress and as a character, to facilitate her art and that, to some degree, is what the movie is about.'

The words and pictures of the title are 'not just about being decorative and beautiful' but about finding pathways to express and connect, says Binoche.

Like his character, as an actor Owen sees language as his 'equipment'. He saw the dialogue-heavy script as an attractive opportunity to embrace and 'really work with' smart, rhythmic language.

Screenwriter writer DiPego, who was on hand for rehearsals and the first couple of weeks on set said he'd 'never been surrounded by so many fine artists'. Each cast and crew member 'elevated' the script layer by layer, and Schepisi described the onscreen relationship between Owen and Binoche as 'chemistry that crackles'.

The film has enabled Schepisi. to ground his direction in powerful visual aesthetics coupled with what he called a 'rich' and 'terrific' subject matter and script. But it was the dichotomy the film establishes and then explores between the title pursuits that he found most compelling.

Dina's need for greater family support leads her to joining the staff at the prestigious Croydon prep school in New England where Jack teaches English. When they first meet, the two artists are consumed by their own circumstances but Jack senses a spark and embarks on an attempt to melt Dina's icy facade. He tries to engage her through wordplay, but learns Dina has told their students that words are nothing but 'traps' and 'lies' while painting opens a realm built upon sensation. What is at first a playful school-wide debate becomes something much greater as both Jack and Dina's personal struggles interact with their intellectual positions.

DiPego said the war between the words and pictures of the title is fun and interesting 'but the real war is what's going on inside these two people. No matter what's facing you, people are often afraid to open up and connect and it feels easier to closer down and be isolated.'
Words and Pictures invites audiences to explore their own appreciation of both language and the visual arts as an adult film that isn't just a romantic comedy but rather a 'real' story of two people trying to find a way forward as they experience great difficulties in pursuing their deepest passions, explains Schepisi.

The romance in the film is not 'something manufactured to drive the film forward', but rather the experiences of down-to-earth people with relatable struggles finding each other and a way forward, he said.


Nina (Juliet Binoche) and Jack (Clive Owen) in a romantic moment
The film has a strong educational context, likely to appeal to a young audience. The characters, their relationships and behaviours question the values and priorities of life and education in the 21st century, such as the use - and distraction - of new technologies. But the film also embraces the merits of all branches of learning, showing us teachers with genuine passions in their chosen fields who work tirelessly to inspire and engage their students.
The themes of communication also had payoffs during the film's own production process. 'Every film develops a language and a set of jokes... But the reason everyone was so happy on this set was that they were just so happy to be working on something that was so well written, that's actually about something and means something,' said Schepisi.
Binoche and Golden Globe winner, Oscar nominee Clive Owen are supported by another Golden Globe winner and Oscar-nominated actor Bruce Davidson, five-time Emmy-nominee Amy Brenneman, and Homeland's Navid Negahban. Cinematographer Ian Barker, editor Peter Honess and production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein are also in the team that has brought together Words and Pictures.

Esther Levy-Fenner

Tuesday 8 July, 2014

About the author

Esther Levy-Fenner is a Melbourne journalist.