The story is rather creaky, but who cares when the 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 student literary magazine. The students adore him, but the faculty know him as a dyspeptic alcoholic, prone to mental games and embarrassing public displays. Just at the point that Jack’s hanging onto his job by his fingernails, in walks the new art teacher Dina Delsanto (Binoche). Dina, too, is caustic and abrasive, but her bad humor stems from the arthritis that hampers her movement and causes great pain. She is a painter who can no longer use the conventional tools of her trade, and, glumly, latches on to this 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 schoolwide competition designed to prove which is more important: words or pictures? It’s a phony competition, which one would think would be self-evident to filmmaker Fred Schepisi (Barbarosa, Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark), who works in a medium in which he’s dependent on both. Meanwhile student dramas swirl, inter-faculty relations sour, Jack makes feeble attempts to repair his relationship with his grown son, and the provenance of a poem Jack has written comes into question. Most interesting, however, is Dina’s solo struggle to find new ways of getting her paints onto her large-scaled canvas.
Amidst all the words and pictures, Jack and Dina form a tentative bond, which is then tested in the harsh light of day. Despite a somewhat dodgy accent, Owen unleashes great charm as his own worst enemy and a man whom no one can fully despise. Binoche utterly enthralls as a “difficult” woman who comes with a barbed tongue and a failing body. One wonders if their pillow talk contains more words or pictures.