This film has magnificent acting by Juliette Binoche and not quite so magnificent by Clive Owen. I kept asking myself, why is this so?
She portrays a great painter twisted by physical pain, he a great writer savaged by alcohol. Mr. Owen does some wonderful bits of acting too. The beauty of his physical gestures when he finally kisses her. The embodied shame, when he’s forced to admit he’s stolen a poem from his own son. Really well done. So why does his character not work at the deepest level?
Mr. Owen is miscast, not because he’s a bad actor, but because he’s playing the wrong thing. He portrays his character like an adult juvenile delinquent with a fast mouth. He does not portray great intelligence and vast talent fallen into drink. Though his characters’ medium, his art form is words, you don’t get the feeling he’s someone who’s danced in the garden of language and then been barred by a fiery angel at its gates, by his own hand.
Meanwhile, Ms. Binoche’s character takes us with her on her journey. She transcends the pain of crippling arthritis, to go beyond limitation, to paint beyond the physical barrier of her own body. Renoir also had to have brushes tied to his hands in order to continue to paint, once every joint in his body betrayed him, seized by the ice storm of disease.
To want, no, to need to express oneself, when the physical body is refusing to express that need! Wow, we see her struggle so clearly. Also, she plays with a full-bodied maturity and heaviness of a person who has pushed themselves through into “fine art”. We don’t know what fine art really is, she demands her students to understand, but that is where we are working. She’s like a mountain. With Mr. Owen you feel he’s playing at a lost greatness, he never really attained. This is not the character, as written by Gerald Di Pego, who also wrote Instinct, another great film about language and silence.
So enough comparisons, what about the rest of the film? It shows the privilege and boredom of elite schooling, the interplay of politics and education, the smallness and competition of administrators, teachers and students. Most poignant, the scenes of sexual hazing and bullying by a student, who just can’t understand why his “joke” gets caught. All threads woven into a tapestry story of dueling artists, who end up playing a duet.
Yet, it is the magnificence of Ms. Binoche’s painter that remains, when all is said and done, or said and painted. Let both these actors continue to reach higher. Mr. Owen, if you could study intelligence more carefully. The pain of being a poet and then failing ones’ words and having nowhere to hide, because you’re so smart…play that true, if you get another chance. Ms. Binoche, you have a different problem. Lets just keep giving you parts worth your talent.