This is a good film ruined by a bad kiss. It’s hard to believe that Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche might seem sexier while debating aesthetic issues in front of students than when making out in a waterfront art studio, but sadly, such is the case. When the chief protagonists finally end their typical romance movie bickering with soulful gazes, the payoff smooch is so awkward that you find yourself thinking, yuck — and then praying that the sex scene won’t be explicit. Owen, who plays an alcoholic English teacher, and Binoche, the new art instructor crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, have undeniable chemistry as foes. But when they lock lips, they seem to still be fighting and the script won’t give them any decent pillow talk intervals to wipe the slightly creepy residual feeling out of our minds.
The fault isn’t only in the writing, though. There’s a tradition to uphold: liberal arts prep school dramas always seem to accentuate the underlying whiff of failure in the teacher’s lives, from Mr. Chips and Miss Jean Brodie to Robin Williams as John Keating. (This film steals more than a bit from Dead Poets Society, including the “Captain My Captain” clichés.) But director Fred Schepisi, now eons away from his great early work like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, moves actors around gracelessly. The drunk scenes are as plodding as the classroom rants.
But Words and Pictures’ strengths come when it gives us a sense of lives adjusting to the beginning of the end. Binoche’s character decides to greet Owen’s as a possible mate because, as she puts it, life has taken so much away from her already. She wants to see if it can work again. Contrasting this with the students preparing to meet their own scary lives makes for nice bathos and humor. It also sets an unconventional stage for a romance film. While the two teachers are fighting, the movie comes alive. In the end however, Schepisi ruins the effect by letting sexy actors kiss like dorky high school nerds.