Apr 16-17: Affecting love and desire in the game of ‘The Exchange’

Cynthia Mitchell translates her profound and acerbic American play (with co-directors Robert Arnold and Rachel Krief) to a French-language musing on deceptions of romance and performance.

The Wisconsin Film Festival will proudly be the US premiere of the morally knotty meta-play that is The Exchange, a French language adaptation of an American production by Cynthia Mitchell, co-directed by the author, Robert Arnold, and Rachel Krief. The press release from Lateral Films pays homage to the intense conversational style of Maurice Pialat and Éric Rohmer, which is no misnomer, but the film-play finds a more modern relevance in Robert Greene’s Actress (WFF 2014), Philippe Garrel‘s Jealousy (MMoCA Spotlight Cinema 2014), and Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (2015).

Its meditation on the nature of performance, the entanglement and exchange of fiction and fact, love and desire, reality and fantasy, as well as the overarching ambiguity of romantic interaction are achingly familiar but distinctively implemented. Memory and perception reside at the core of every scene, escalating to a fever pitch in the smartly provocative dialogue between couples that is as exhausting as it is engaging. If the austerity of The Exchange may be initially uninviting, the profound look at desire in the theatrical tradition through self-destructive and deliciously acerbic interplay is worthy of infatuation.

What begins in a brightly lit Parisian bookstore in ‘La Friche‘ is an innocent inquiry to an employee about writer Frank Lake. An encroaching, premeditated malevolence soon turns a simple pleasantry into a viciously heated confrontation and duel of wills. The lovesick Lydia Karlson (Françoise Guiol), reeling from a falling out with the very wordsmith in question, has decided to take her humiliation public in confronting his new belle: the fairer, “intractably nice” Claire (Maryne Bertieaux).

As Lydia attempts to twist her scathing words around Claire, the young woman throws them off, unwilling to become entrapped in the head game she wishes to play. However, Lydia appears to have the last word, asserting that the part Claire played in Frank’s latest production, Champion, is inseparable from herself, recalling a quote about “burying the sun if it meant that I could stay with you.” Or is it “keep you?” Claire doth protests. Hypothetical scenarios and differing moral opinions pierce the screenplay’s forthcoming drama, provoking scenes fraught with unassailable tension.


The camera follows Lydia home to unwind, but she’s only further vexed in a phone conversation with her unheard/unseen mother, who broaches the topic of depression. Lydia steadily spills her affectations of playing every persona in order to “be everything” for Frank. It’s one of many sharply literal but also effective nods to her acting ability, fooling even herself when donning various Shakespearean masks. But in the elusive effort to satisfy Frank, she has succumbed to anonymity.

In ill-fated retaliation, Lydia agrees to a blind date with the dashing and youthful Max (Massimiliano Belsito), an actor who’s fittingly rehearsing for a part in a Greek tragedy. Max, unlike Lydia, seems to hold no illusions about who he is, dubbing himself a “professional liar” as he enters into her verbal contract: he must make her fall in love with him just as he has, accidentally and intentionally, charmed his former lovers. Little does Max realize how this relationship dare/simulation will psychologically evolve into something he cannot restrain as a thespian nor mortal, heterosexual man.

Their half-affected courtship possesses a reverse objectification, as Lydia wishes to test herself and the possibility of relinquishing the metaphorical hold that Frank still has on her. However, the dynamic between Lydia and Max tumbles into an altogether more sinister and complicated dimension, evocative of the title of The Exchange, once he realizes his mere curiosity and coquettish gestures won’t convince Lydia to love him like he may have been accustomed. Instead, Max tries to transform himself into Frank by mere hypnotic coaching and role-playing. And the translation for the film works as it would for the stage, because Frank is never seen, only vaguely described as idealistic teenage fabrication.

Thanks to Guiol and Belsito’s brutally emotional performances, the handheld camera’s scrutinizing close-ups of faces, and use of typically contemplative settings and negative space, Frank feels palpable and present, although he’s eternally abstract and mythological. Rather than the tryst meeting a violent end, Mitchell and her co-directors reinforce the unanswerable questions of human compatibility. In initially highlighting Lydia’s candidness that reveals a mutual kinkiness, the game between the parties echoes Bill McCabe’s famous advice from Simple Men (1992): “There’s no such thing as romance. There’s only trouble and desire.”

  • The Exchange makes its U.S. premiere in Madison at the Wisconsin Film Festival on Saturday, April 16, at UW-Cinematheque at 6:15p with Cynthia Mitchell & co-director Robert Arnold in attendance for a Q&A. They will also appear after the film’s encore presentation on Sunday, April 17, at Sundance Cinema 5 at 8:15p. At the time of publication, tickets were still available to both screenings.