Felix, a middle-aged atheist adrift without family ties, and Meira, a young Hasidic woman feeling lost and smothered under nearly the opposite circumstances, find tentative connection in one another in Canadian helmer Maxime Giroux’s somberly seductive “Felix and Meira.” Though set in present-day Montreal, this tender romance unfolds like an episode from another century, paying the sort of careful attention to social boundaries you’d expect to find in a classic forbidden-love novel. While neither Meira’s arc nor her Orthodox Jewish environment constitutes especially new territory, this Oscilloscope acquisition distinguishes itself through its subtlety and sensitivity, offering quiet reflection for festival and arthouse auds.
The latest in a small run of films with narrative ties to the Hasidic community, “Felix and Meira” suggests that its characters would be happier if given more freedom and fewer restrictions — as John Turturro’s “Fading Gigolo” playfully demonstrated earlier this year. More surprising was Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void,” which respectfully details a woman’s reasons for embracing conservative Judaism. “Felix and Meira” shares lead actress Hadas Yaron with that film, but reverses her character’s trajectory.
Meira lives in a state of quiet unhappiness, her world confined to the few blocks of her insular Mile End neighborhood, where hipsters and Hasidim meet. It’s cold and overcast this time of year — a feel reflected in Sara Mishara’s dreary, underlit lensing, which often obscures faces amid murky brown shadows. Trudging the sidewalks with her infant daughter, Meira isn’t like the other Orthodox wives, who see it as their duty to bear their husbands as many children as possible. Instead, she sneaks birth-control pills and sings along to a forbidden record when she has the house to herself (another nod to the pic’s slightly out-of-time quality).
Giroux, who isn’t Jewish but lived in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, seems to have gravitated toward such a character because she represents a rare case — in youthful Montreal, at least — of a woman living today under a centuries-old system designed to foster modesty and curb sexual temptation. Rather than holding Meira’s husband accountable, the helmer respects the soft-spoken Shulem (Luzer Twersky) and his faith. Shulem genuinely loves his wife, and though he’s frustrated by constantly having to apologize for her behavior within the community, he secretly cherishes those qualities about her which refuse to be tamed.
By contrast, Felix (Martin Dubreuil) is a bit of a cad. Naturally flirtatious, he doesn’t hesitate to hit on Meira when he first spots her at the local pizzeria, despite her all-too-evident disinterest. It’s virtually inconceivable in this early scene that Felix’s efforts might lead to any sort of success. The two don’t even share the same language — he speaks French, she speaks Yiddish — and yet, he persists in chatting her up (in English) whenever their paths cross. Meira’s not looking to cheat on her husband, but she is looking for something more than her limited existence can offer, and Felix — whose unresolved issues with his recently deceased father render him especially vulnerable when they meet — is just patient to serve as her guide.
It’s this sense of patience, rather than passion, that sets Felix and Meira’s slow-blooming love affair apart. Ever so gradually, the movie chips away at the various obstacles her faith has put in the way of their friendship: The first time she raises her gaze to look him directly in the eyes, an enormous power passes between them, and later, when Felix finally gets the chance to remove her wig, the intimacy is overwhelming. Of course, these prohibitions exist for good reason, designed to protect the very fidelity their growing attraction threatens to destroy. But faith seems beside the point here. Before meeting, Felix and Meira appear virtually dead within their respective routines, but in one another’s company, they spark to life — a sensation Giroux unconventionally opts to illustrate by inserting a vintage clip of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s train-station performance of “Didn’t It Rain.”
While Dubreuil reads as something of a sad clown, Yaron has a natural radiance that comes through as Meira starts to open up. Her expressions show that same precocity Woody Allen saw in Mariel Hemingway when making “Manhattan”: a young woman ripe and ready for experience, temporarily held back by her own naivete. To watch her face light up when she tries on a pair of jeans, say, or illuminated by the lights of Times Square during her own trip to New York, is to feel a sense of intuitive identification with the character.
We yearn for Meira to break out of her repressive confines, though it’s hard to imagine that moving straight into another relationship is the solution to her dissatisfaction. The movie stumbles a bit in the last act, including a strange, vaguely comic sequence in which Felix goes undercover, wearing a fake beard and curled hair extensions, after their forbidden friendship is uncovered. The coda, intended as romantic, is severely miscalculated. Even the camera can’t seem to handle the sudden lapse into schmaltz, as the sun (so seldom seen in this melancholy film) blows out the final shot.