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Juliette Binoche, Clive Owen play sparring teachers in 'Words and Pictures'

Actors Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche are shown in a scene from the film

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Actors Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche are shown in a scene from the film "Words and Pictures." THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO- D Films-Doane Gregory

TORONTO - Onscreen chemistry can be difficult to predict, but director Fred Schepisi says it was immediately apparent when Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen stepped onto the set of "Words and Pictures."

"Sometimes it can be hard work, with these two it was (there) from the beginning," the affable Aussie movie-maker said in an interview at last September's Toronto International Film Festival. "They (had) a similar sense of humour, a similar attitude toward life and humour and everything. And you could see it."

Opening Friday, the Vancouver-shot film features the stars as duelling teachers at a privileged prep school: Owen is charming English teacher Jack while Binoche plays newly hired art instructor Dina. The two soon begin to spar over the debate laid out in the film's title — which has more merit, words or pictures? — an argument that is soon taken up by their students.

Schepisi — whose credits include "Roxanne" and "A Cry in the Dark" — says he was drawn to the clever premise.

"It's a film with ideas and it's not just about two people falling in love," he said. "It's about education, it's about (the problems) with education. And it's not just kids in a society full of distracting electronic things — unless their teachers are being inspiring you know, how are the kids going to be inspired unless they're challenged?"

He added: "The two main characters, sparking off one another, end up inspiring their students and then they start to realize, you know, what it is they've not been doing with their lives."

Despite some lighthearted banter between Dina and Jack, it soon becomes apparent that both are grappling with some serious personal struggles. Dina's art career has been derailed by her battle with severe rheumatoid arthritis while Jack drinks heavily and has a strained relationship with his son.

At the festival, Owen said he'd long wanted to work with Binoche and that the pair clicked instantly.

"When you're working with someone as great as she is it's just great fun to do ... It means the filming days were alive," said the "Closer" star. "Straightaway it was challenging and playful and we were giving each other a hard time — but also having fun.

"I love reading and I love this script because I play somebody who loves language."

It was also a fortuitous twist that Binoche is an accomplished painter, something Schepisi didn't initially realize when he cast her as Dina.

The "English Patient" actress says her mother taught her to draw when she was a girl and that she was drawn to the larger questions posed by the film.

"How do you deal with art when you have a disease or when you have a problem like alcoholism? How do you deal with the new (situation)?" she said at the fest.

All of the paintings in the film are the work of the actress, who joked that there might be a market for her artwork, based on the response from those who worked on "Words and Pictures."

"I've been giving (my paintings) away, but I've been asked so many times because of the film, I'm sort of like 'hang on a minute, let me go home and think about it."

"Words and Pictures" opens Friday in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. It's set to expand to other cities the following week.

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