It’s always gratifying to see a movie in which an ostensibly closed-off community is depicted humanely rather than voyeuristically. Such a film is “Félix and Meira,” co-written and directed by French-Canadian Maxime Giroux. It’s about the expanding discomforts of Meira (Hadas Yaron), a Hasidic woman with a small child who chafes at her life’s ultra-orthodox restrictions.
Her husband, Shulem (Luzer Twersky), loves her deeply while being continually baffled by her unorthodox desires. She sometimes sneaks a listen to a bluesy phonograph record she has hidden away and secretly takes birth control pills. She tells a startled Hasidic friend (Melissa Weisz) that she doesn’t want any more children, provoking the response: “But it’s our duty!”
Into her life appears Félix (Martin Dubreuil), a wayward soul whose wealthy father, from whom he was estranged, has recently died. Félix’s entitlement to a portion of the inheritance, incumbent upon his doting sister’s provision to make something of his life, doesn’t appear to alter his anomie. It is only when he chances to meet Meira, who lives near his apartment, that he perks up.
Their extremely tentative communion proceeds at a hyperslow pace. Although Félix, who is not Jewish and not religious, is clearly smitten, he holds back out of respect for Meira’s predicament. His patience is more than a seductive ploy. For Meira, Félix is the Other – she has to force herself even to make eye contact – and yet she is comfortable around him. He represents the life she wants for herself, untethered to Hasidic ritual.
Giroux and his co-writer, Alexandre Laferrière, don’t provide a rich layering of insight into these people, and yet the actors, especially Twersky and Yaron, make it all resonate.
Yaron has a marvelous sensual reticence that was also employed to great effect in the remarkable Israeli film “Fill the Void,” in which she played an ultra-Orthodox woman who, as the Scriptures prescribe, marries her deceased sister’s husband. (That film was directed by an ultra-Orthodox woman, Rama Burshtein. Giroux, by contrast, is not Jewish.)
Twersky is marvelous in perhaps the film’s most difficult role. Shulem at first seems almost comically righteous compared to his wife’s needling inquisitiveness. When Meira, in bouts of exasperation, falls down and plays dead, he is more puzzled than shocked by her playacting. In these moments he sees himself as the patriarch of not one child but two. But when it becomes clear to him that Meira is seeing another man, however chastely, we realize his bafflement with her is actually an exasperated expression of his deep devotion. When he tracks down Félix, after Félix and Meira have repaired to New York from Montreal, he attacks him in the street. The pummeling this spindly, pacific man metes out is horrible to see because we know the pain it issues from.
Félix doesn’t strenuously defend himself. He expects he has it coming, and yet, in the end, nothing can really keep him and Meira apart. The best scene in the movie is the man-to-man sit-down Shulem has with Félix, when it is clear he has lost his wife and perhaps his child as well. The full measure of Shulem’s humanity comes through here. Even as his heart is breaking, he wants Félix to do the right thing by Meira and give her a good and protected life. Alone in his apartment afterward, he listens to Meira’s blues record and then, in an act of total despair, lies down on the floor and plays dead.
Giroux doesn’t end it here, though. He draws the film out a bit longer, so we can see that the newfound life between Félix and Meira, now that they liberated themselves, is still fraught. The denouement reminded me of the famous wordless closing shot in “The Graduate,” when the baffled, exhilarated couple is faced with “What now?” Grade: B+ (Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity.)