This film has magnificent acting by Juliette Binoche and not so magnificent by Clive Owen. I kept saying to myself, why is this so?
She portrays a great painter twisted by physical pain. He plays a great writer savaged by alcohol. He does do some wonderful bits of acting too. The beauty of his physicalness when he finally kisses her. The embodied shame when he has to admit to his son he has stolen a poem from him. So well done. But why then, did he character not work?
Mr. Owen is miscast not because he did a bad job of acting, but because he is acting the wrong thing. He portrays his character as an adult juvenile delinquent with a fast mouth. He did not portray great intelligence fallen a vast distance into drink. I would have cast Hugh Laure, who if you see “Mr. Pip” will give you a sense of the depth and breath necessary. Even though Mr. Owen’s character’s medium, his art, is words, you just don’t get the feeling of someone who has danced in the garden of language, and then been bared by a fiery angel at its gates, by his own hand.
Meanwhile Ms. Binoche takes us with her. She is transcending the pain of crippling arthritis to go beyond that limitation and paint beyond a 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 an 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 a full bodied maturity and heaviness, of a person who has pushed themselves through into “fine art”. We don’t know what that is, but that is where we are working, she demands of her students. She is like a mountain. While with Mr. Owen you always feel he is playing at lost greatness that never was attained to begin with, which is not what we know about the character as written by Gerald Di Pego, who also wrote”Instinct” another great film about language and silence.
So enough of comparisons, what about the rest of the film? It shows the boredom of elite schooling, the interplay of politics and education, the smallness and competition of administrators, teachers and students. Most poignant are the scenes of sexual hazing and bulling by a student who can’t understand why his “joke” gets caught. All of these threads are woven well into the tapestry of this story about dueling artists, who end up playing a duet.
But 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. But Mr. Owen you must study intelligence more carefully. The pain of being a poet and then failing ones words and having nowhere to hide, because you are so smart…play that somewhere if you get another chance. Ms. Binoche, you have a different problem. Lets just keep giving you parts worth your talent.