“FELIX AND MEIRA”— Purpose and Restrictions

“Félix & Meira”

Purpose and Restrictions

Amos Lassen

Religion both restricts and gives purpose to the people we meet in “Félix & Meira”, an acutely observed and perfectly played slice of human drama. Meira (Hadas Yaron) is a young, married Hasidic mother who is first noticed by thirtysomething  Félix (Martin Dubreuil), while she’s waiting for her order at a corner store. He compliments her on the drawing  she’s making for her baby daughter. Later he sees her pushing a stroller on a cold Montreal day, and he jogs toward her and attempts to start a conversation. She looks away and admonishes him to not to speak to her.

This is  the story of their tentative attachment to each other, and the turmoil it potentially causes in the woman’s Orthodox community. Co-writer and director Maxime Giroux’s shows us the pain of the film’s love triangle. There’s a bit of wonderful irony when Meira and her husband, Shulem (Luzer Twersky), have their biggest fight at night while lying in their separate beds, never speaking louder than a whisper. A later scene between Félix and Shulem is noteworthy for how little is said, and how well both men contain their emotion. The connection between Félix and Meira builds with a similar restraint. There’s little laughter, little touching. They go out dancing, but Meira is shy, and one observer notes that Félix has no physical grace.

There is a bit of old fashioned romance here with the lengths Félix goes to just to get a glimpse of Meira’s back are hilarious and heartbreaking while at the same time, there’s no certainty that these two are really compatible. If Meira doesn’t know who she is, how can she know who she should be with? Félix, too, is unsure of himself: he holds onto grief that has left him aimless.

Shulem catches a case of identity crisis from the two protagonists. He begins as little more than a scold because  Meira fails to live up to what’s expected of her. Then he becomes more bewildered over the inability to connect with his wife, and his growing confusion humanizes him. Twersky’s performance gives an emotional anchor to the story: someone will get seriously hurt here.

Because Meira says so little, her dilemma or the source of her discontent is unclear. Is there something in her that uniquely rubs against the orthodoxy of her community, or are we supposed to trust that any creative, introspective woman would be driven to malaise by the religious lifestyle? Director Giroux doesn’t make such a statement and there  are other Hasidic women here who seem perfectly content. But the absence of depth in Meira, the character,  leaves little else to hold on to than such generalizations. Loneliness and alienation are universal, so Meira serves as a kind of outline, like the drawings she makes, of an outsider, which viewers can fill in as he or she likes.

In addition, the film makes great use of the song “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” by1960’s soul singer Wendy Rene. In one of the early scenes, Meira listens to it on the sly, taking the record from a hiding place beneath the couch. The music serves as a stand-in for her voice, speaking fluently in an emotional language that leaves its listener tongue tied.

In the beginning the film moves slowly, but it carefully lays the groundwork for a number of moving closing scenes. We see that religion both restricts and gives purpose to the people in the film which is an acutely observed and perfectly played looked at human drama set mostly in Montreal.

In the beginning, the story focuses on Malka whose light is definitely being hidden under a bushel, as well as a wig and frumpy dresses. Bookish husband Shulem has a big beard and he’s more into attending yeshiva than paying attention to his pretty wife. Still, he comes home occasionally to lay down the law. He hates that she listens to ’60s soul music; good thing he doesn’t know about the birth-control pills! Almost any way she attempts to express herself will bring shame on the community, according to him, but his extreme piety doesn’t bring much joy to anyone. Meaningfully, her main mode of resistance is to play dead while he berates her in Yiddish. It is important to know that in this world, marriages are arranged and often all a bride and groom have shared before their wedding is a cup of tea in a hotel lobby.

Around the corner from a nearby kosher deli lives Félix, an agnostic. He is charming and dissolute, the son of a rich but distant father (Benoît Girard) who’s busy dying when we meet him. Félix seems determined to fritter away his time and any eventual inheritance. His affectionate sister (Anne-Élisabeth Bossé) chides him for self-absorption. (He doesn’t even remember the name of his sibling’s live-in boyfriend of seven years). However, his father’s  impending demise does present some kind of wake-up call.

Félix is drawn to Malka and her pink-clad baby girl. Despite social admonitions against talking to, or even looking at, nonfamilial men, she eventually responds to his persistence, and introduces herself, in English, as Meira—the Hebrew word for “light”. Soon a shared love of music and art leads to trouble. ,

This love story isn’t about religion — or its lack — but about the attraction of difference and the undeniable need to feel alive. That’s something that Meira clearly longs for; going against the restrictions imposed by her Orthodox community, and weary of being scolded by her bewildered husband. Meira is a time bomb in an unflattering wig and frumpy dresses, and when she meets Felix who has just lost his father, explosion seems inevitable.

 “Felix and Meira” presents the pair’s slow, circling courtship as a dance of incremental intimacy. Tiny advances in seduction — like a direct gaze, or the eventual removal of that wig  take on the power of full-on sexual collisions, and we see and feel Meira’s sensual deprivation. Felix’s f charisma brings color into her dull world, and it’s to the film’s credit that Shulem is not an unfeeling counterpoint but as a loving, observant husband who’s simply bemused by his wife’s small rebellions.

In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Shulem and Felix reach an uneasy détente, a foreshadowing of an ending. This is an unusual story of hesitation and self-expression with a sense of restraint, delivering characterization through looks instead of melodrama. This is a refreshing change of pace in a measured movie, with emotion pushing through silences as the plot seeks to understand personal need. 

Just before Feliz and Meira met, she was  beginning to regret her life choices, finding her marriage to Shulem suffocating with interest in art and music  that are taken from her by her husband who doesn’t understand her rejection of orthodox ways. Felix is smitten with Meira, pursuing her at a time of vulnerability for the both of them.  

The movie is observational, studying the characters as they cope with the current stasis in their lives. For Felix, confusion arrives with the death of his father, a cold man the son never received a chance to understand. They were distant, with family love gifted to Felix’s sister, who’s inherited the estate, sharing money with her brother as a peace offering of sorts. Living alone, Felix is beginning to understand his isolation; he finds the discovery of Meira to be enlivening. A loving mother of one, Meira has turned to secrecy to live her life in full, taking birth control and hiding drawings and music from Shulem, pulling out of an orthodox life where she has no friends or confidants, fearing she’s in too deep to even entertain the idea of change. Dutiful but pained, Meira finds Felix’s attention enticing. She’s not necessarily looking for love, but the intimate companionship he’s dying to provide gives her a sense of hope. 

The film explores individualism yet Meira’s fantasy isn’t sexually motivated, she merely wants to sample a forbidden world, with the very act of wearing pants supplying overwhelming liberation she can only share with Felix, who’s happy to encourage her interests. Their union is more about presence than romance, but tenderness is felt, only restrained by Meira’s guilt and confusion.  

 All of the performances are skillful, requiring a sense of stillness to communicate subtle offerings of endearment, and Twersky as Shulem is the man of the house driven by religious duty, and not just another monster waiting to discipline his wife. The humanity of these personalities is vividly detailed. Giroux finds an ideal way to capture the consequences of forbidden love, adding just the right amount of bittersweet to respect the moment.”

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