The Man Who Wasn't There

in 55th San Francisco International Film Festival

by Andrés Nazarala

It’s not easy to deal with the subject of mental pathology. We have seen how many filmmakers idealize or caricature characters who don’t fit into the social parameters of normality. Or use them to criticize society or the mental health system, sometimes successfully; many times floating in a swamp of pamphlets and clichés.

Eran Kolirin’s The Exchange (Hahithalfut) — winner of this year’s FIPRESCI Prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival — distances itself from these common formulas and stands as an innovative film that portrays — with distance, empathy and meticulousness — how a normal man adopts a behavior that gets more and more odd as the film progresses.

Although a work like this inevitably turns the viewer into a sort of psychiatrist — or a judge of normality —, Korilin explained that from his point of view the main character is not mentally ill, which enhances the possibilities of interpretation and welcomes metaphoric intentions, all this powered by an ending that pays tribute to the unforgettable last scene of Antonioni’s Blow Up.

Because The Exchange is one of those movies that can be seen from different angles: as the chronicle of a man who becomes unhinged as well as an exercise in ostranenie over what appears to be normal, as if it were a lost Raymond Carver story or, let’s say, another tale of maladjustment inside the machine of modern life.

In the first minutes we watch the main character’s life, going from home to work (Oded is a physicist and professor) and back, where his wife — a young architect — waits for him. Korilin films this as if it were Robert Bresson’s version of Groundhog Day, using an observant camera and obsessively repeating the same shots, in order to offer an ironic view of the routine of modern life.

But Oded’s progressively strange behavior breaks this meticulous visual artifact. He steps out of reality: begins to stare at the building where he lives from the other side of the street, gets home early and watches his wife sleep, lies down in public spaces, and gets off the bus in different stations. The fact that Oded is a physicist is not an innocent choice. He begins to perceive reality differently from the rest of us.

Eran Korilin doesn’t take the easy way to show this man “going mad”. He opts for humor, evoking the physical and singular displacement of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. He doesn’t make fun of his character. He just shows him breaking the established order, challenging taboos (he pulls down his pants when nobody is watching), looking at things from new angles and perspectives.

When Oded meets an eccentric neighbor, The Exchange becomes a buddy movie. His new friend Yoav also defies routine but he is definitely an angry character who, for example, shows Oded the pleasures of shouting at “empty apartments” from outside, one strange detail that in the context of the movie becomes oddly funny.

This is a comedy narrated in a serious way, with a cast that embraces absurd situations rationally, never falling into caricature. It’s also a disturbing film. Eran Kolirin is skilled at building suspense with everyday situations. It is not directly political — like Policeman, the remarkable film by the also Israeli director Nadav Lapid — in The Exchange the issue is the social order and how to break it, challenging the rules of a society that appears to be afraid of what comes out of the protagonist’s plans.

The Exchange made me think of a Radiohead song: “Everything in its Right Place”, an experimental piece that uses repetition — and the voice of the singer ensuring what the title announces — but which suddenly begins to disarm itself into chaos. Or, let’s say, into another kind of order.