Usually when the protag unexpectedly returns home, it means he’ll discover his wife in bed with someone else. In “The Exchange,” his wife’s alone, and so, ultimately, is he. Eran Kolirin’s follow-up to “The Band’s Visit” is a completely different affair, an unhurried look at what happens when a tiny change in routine suddenly makes the world look like a new and strange place. The concept is clever, but the execution is so measured as to become soporific. Mixed boos and applause at the Venice press screening signal uncertain prospects, and certainly not the success of Kolirin’s previous charmer.
Ph.D candidate Oded (Rotem Keinan) teaches physics and has a perfectly normal life with his just-graduated architect wife Tami (Sharon Tal). Snippets of his day reveal his usual schedule, unchanging and unremarkable. When he leaves something at home he calls Tami, who’s preparing a project for a job interview, but she doesn’t respond so he returns to their apartment. Inside he finds Tami’s fallen asleep, but more striking to him is how different and calm the place looks in the unfamiliar afternoon light.
Suddenly his eyes are open to the details all around him as he discovers that unexpected things in life become invisible unless they’re actively sought out. In the days that follow he breaks his routine, taking his usual bus to a different destination, getting off the elevator at a different floor, exposing himself in a mirror. His neighbor Yoav (Dov Navon) recognizes a kindred spirit, and soon the two are doing things together like shout at an empty apartment. Oded is also drifting away from Tami, with apparently little regret on either side.
This lack of emotion is what stops “The Exchange” cold. Oded is never a real person, just a wide-eyed automaton who looks even more catatonic after he starts noticing things, like the mildew in a corner, than he did before. He and Yoav are amusingly peculiar, but quirky isn’t enough to make characters two-dimensional, let alone three. As the two men encourage each other into mild outrageousness, they lose all connection not merely to the quotidian but also to any emotional core.
The result is that the deadpan is no longer funny and the lesson learned is no more profound than “Stop and smell the roses.” Kolirin has stated that the idea for “The Exchange” came after countless nights away from home traveling with “The Band’s Visit,” when a return to daily life forced him to adopt a new gaze. The premise of challenging one’s habits is intriguing, but such detachment, without the hint of something underneath, is generally a one-way ticket to tedium.
A preternatural calm exists around even side characters, and Keinan’s increasingly blank stare loses its initial amusement. Everything here is restrained, from the calm, assured lensing to the colorless tonalities. That the helmer and d.p. Shai Goldman can sustain this placid composure for so long is a testament to the integrity of Kolirin’s vision, but it will divide viewers. Interiors were shot in a German studio, re-creating exactly the style and decor of a middle-class Tel Aviv apartment.