A new movie plays out the debate over whether words or pictures have more impact at an elite, New England prep school.
Juliette Binoche plays Dina, a gifted Italian artist who moves into teaching when she starts suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, which limits her ability to paint. Dina takes a teaching job that allows her to be closer to her family. Her nemesis is Jack, a charismatic English teacher played by Clive Owen. A once-promising author and poet, he’s been suffering from writer’s block for a number of years. Trouble brews when Jack hears that Dina has told her art students that words are “traps” and “lies”. He is furious and wants to prove to her that words are more powerful.
Both on-screen and in person, Binoche states that she agrees with Dina. “I am more of a visual person. As an actress, you are given words and you have to decide whether to play the words, or do something other than the words. I’ve always felt that somehow the words were just the tip of the iceberg. Acting is about feelings.”
She says it was as a student that she learnt to forget about the words. “I really was in touch with that big question when I was 18. In an acting class there was a teacher who would say stop it, stop it. She repeated it so many times until I was lost and it was then that I discovered that acting is to be lost. It is another layer. When you have a chunk of words, how do you as an actor integrate it and make it real? Those are huge questions.”
Perhaps this vision should come as no surprise. After all, the 49-year-old has constantly proven that she is more than just one of the finest actresses to come out of France. In 2010, appearing in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, she became the first to win the Best Actress prizes at the Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals – the European triple crown. In 2008 she surprised many by appearing in a modern dance production, In-I, in collaboration with the choreographer Akram Khan.
Binoche is also an artist herself – and her own paintings appear in Words and Pictures. It’s not the first time that’s happened, either, with her paintings also featuring in 1991’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. She even designed the French movie poster.
“I started painting when I was 9,” says Binoche. “My mother bought art books and I was just so passionate about these books that I would just copy pictures from them.”
The influence of her mother is not just limited to painting. “I’ve never played a teacher and my mother was a teacher. She was my French and theatre teacher, so for me there is a resonance that I was interested in exploring.”
The debilitating effect of arthritis was also something she found intriguing to explore. How does an artist cope when they are forced to find new ways of working?
It is this idea of reinvention that drives Binoche to continue to try out new things. “As an actor, and I think generally as an artist, you have to take the risk that comes out of the depths of the human journey and the feeling of desperation that is in all of us,” she says.
• Words and Pictures is screening at the Madinat Arena today at 8.30pm