Actress Juliette Binoche as art teacher Dina Delsanto in "Words and Pictures." Photo credit: Doane Gregory.

“Words and Pictures”

May 23, 2014

In “Words and Pictures,” a comedy-drama from director Fred Schepisi, Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche star as teachers who form a rivalry to determine whether literature or art is more important.

Costume Designer Tish Monahan connected the costumes to a deeper theme in the story that revealed the inner struggle of Binoche’s character, art teacher Dina Delsanto. She’s challenged by Owen’s English teacher, Jack Marcus, to a duel that he hopes will energize the students, but that also has a way of reviving the art teacher’s spirit.

As Delsanto, Binoche, who is a painter in real life, plays a middle-aged artist so crippled by rheumatoid arthritis that she can no longer paint effectively; teaching is her new, but unsatisfying, means of support. Eventually, she learns to paint by using brushes the size of brooms and a wheeled chair.

Monaghan began by researching arthritis and female painters, searching for images of them in their studios.

“Once I knew what the general tone of the works were going to be, then I decided to go with a very neutral palette for Juliette—at least in her studio—so that all the vibrancy of the paintings could stand out.

“I did not have a single opportunity to speak with her prior to her arriving. I wasn’t able to get a single reaction from her with all of the research I had done. It was with a considerable amount of not-visible anxiety that I did my first fitting with her,” Monaghan said.

Binoche made choices from Monaghan’s rack of clothes, “And then she pulled out of her suitcase two sweaters, the concept of which she was interested in using. One was a very expensive, stretched out, pulled to smithereens, washed and shrunk cashmere sweater. It was like a giant rectangle. On her it was extremely soft and looked really lived in.”

That would be the basis of her character’s painting studio uniform. Oversized men’s pants from American Eagle complete her look.

“We reproduced our own sweaters by buying a men’s XXL sweater,” Monaghan said. “We washed it, stretched it and blocked it out.” The navy sweaters came from J. Crew; Monaghan bought the oatmeal cashmere sweater for $2 from Value Village, a thrift store in Vancouver.

“The film follows her journey from someone being a bit angry…as she’s trying to fight this affliction that is crippling her and not enabling her to follow her painting passion,” said Monaghan. Splashes of color begin to show – a scarf here, a tank top strap there, and finally, larges splotches of paint on her sweaters.

Because she’s a painter and her paintings were going to be used in her character’s studio and as part of filmmaking process, Binoche wanted to organically age and weather the clothes.

“On her days off, she was going to paint. She wanted to naturally get paint on her clothes, rather than have anything applied. Then it was two days before the shots were going to happen and there wasn’t enough paint on them,” Monaghan said.

After consulting with the director and Binoche, Monaghan hired the head of the film’s painting department, whose wife is also a painter, and in no time, they dabbed and splashed the appropriate paint colors onto half a dozen sets of costumes.

“When I handed the outfits over to Juliette, she said, ‘But I’m not going to use this color of paint.’ So we had to cover some of it up,” Monaghan said.

Then, serendipitously, the designer spotted a T-shirt on set. “It had apparently been left behind by one of the on-set painters. I just washed it and showed it to Juliette,” who accepted it readily.

“That was kind of a happy accident—a bona fide painter’s shirt. For her, that was very organic and real.”

“Words and Pictures” opens in limited release in theaters today.

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