By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com September 7, 2011 at 5:21AM
"The Band's Visit" was something of a runaway success when it started doing the rounds in 2007. The feature debut of Israeli director Eran Kolirin, it told the story of an Egyptian police orchestra who become stranded in an Israeli desert town. Warm and witty, it became the best-reviewed foreign film of 2008, and was controversially denied the chance to be Israel's Oscar entry because of the rule that no more than 50% of films' dialogue can be in English. It's taken Kolirin a little time to follow it up, but that sophomore film has arrived, premiering today in Venice, and it's a definite about-turn from its predecessor.
Inspired in part by Kolirin's experience on the road promoting his last film (the equivalent of how a band's second album tends to be songs about being in a touring rock band, we suppose...), "The Exchange" is an absurdist, existential comedy without many laughs -- not necessarily a criticism in and of itself, but it's hard to argue that the film is wholly successful, even if there's some interesting ideas, strong performances and well-achieved filmmaking at hand.
Oded and Tami (film newcomers Rotem Keinan and Sharon Tal) are a young married couple living in an unnamed Israeli city. He's a physicist and university lecturer, studying for his PhD, she's a recently-graduated architect, looking for a job. One day, Oded forgets something, and returns home in the afternoon, seeing his apartment in an entirely new way, and from there, the idea of looking at his own life out of context becomes something of an obsession, particularly once he discovers his neighbor Yoav (Dov Navon) shares his new interest.
It's an idiosyncratic premise, the only major filmic reference point that we can think of being Christopher Nolan's debut "Following" (although it's very short story-like in its construction) but even that doesn't quite compare, particularly given the mostly comic spin that Kolirin puts on matters. He describes his own experience, of becoming addicted to the string of hotel rooms on the press circuit, as the inspiration, and he certainly gets across the effects, if not the appeal, quite well; Oded visibly lightens the first time he takes a day off work, simply so he can return to his own home and reexamine it.
The director also has some smart things to say about voyeurism, as usual linked to the audience: Oded, in his new role of looking from the outside in, doesn't step in to help when his wife has car trouble on the way to an important meeting, or when a man falls ill in the street (in the film's most impressive shot, a long one that pans from side to side, following a cyclist). Unfortunately, the impassivity, and air of general ennui, makes it hard to care about Oded, despite a strong debut performance from Keinan. Fortunately, Tal is excellent as Tami, taking an underwritten character and investing her with real sympathy -- although it unbalances the film somewhat: it's partially about the disintegration of a relationship, but almost as soon as Oded's alienation begins, you're screaming at Tal to leave him.
It also wraps up abruptly, coming to a close just as things are getting interesting (the film's emotional climax, which involves the characters watching a video of a karaoke take on Carole King's "You've Got A Friend," is one of the best), and you feel that, while Kolirin has an interesting premise, he didn't quite know what to do with it.
Visually, the film uses an interesting backdrop of Israeli concrete architecture and marble-walled apartment buildings, all shot with a brownish tinge by "The Band's Visit" DoP Shai Goldman. But it can't quite be kept from being a little bland -- there's only so many times you can shoot a car park or a motorway flyover if you're not a real visual poet, and the director ain't there yet. It's not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination (although it received the loudest collection of boos at the festival so far, surprisingly), but neither is it a fully realized one. [C]