In his Boston Globe review, Ty Burr complained Félix and Meira was needlessly slow in the telling. I felt that the movie is needlessly discreet.
By Gerald Peary
It’s perhaps a bit too orchestrated, having the ending of Félix and Meira so obviously echo the downer conclusion of The Graduate. In both cases, a couple who have run away to be together suddenly grasp that maybe it was a rash decision. A stupid decision. They look stiffly ahead, at a loss for consoling words. In The Graduate, Benjamin and Elaine have their shared epiphany on a city bus. In Félix and Meira, the lost duo, she married to another, are floating on a gondola in Venice. Ah, deathly Venice, where another famously adulterous twosome, Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina, once fled.
But long before Venice there’s winterbound Montreal. There, Maxime Groux’s delicate, deliberate tale begins. It’s prayer night in a Hasidic household, the men daven, the women, from a corridor filled with children, bring in the food. The men in black coats sit on one side of the table, the women in white are segregated on the other side. Their prayers are in Hebrew, their language is Yiddish.
The camera focuses on one young woman, Meira (Hadas Yaron), who seems much distressed. In ensuing scenes, we learn that she is estranged from Shulem (Luzer Twersky), her deeply religious husband, and is uncomfortable with the restraints of the Ultra-Orthodox life. She likes to draw, she’s frustrated when the electric lights go off for Shabbat. More than anything, Meira is horrified that, as a compliant Jewish wife, she’s bred to be a baby factory, bringing into the world anywhere from 6 to 14 newborns. She has one toddler, and that’s plenty. Secretly, she swallows birth control pills.
In her neighborhood, there’s another lost soul, Felix (Martin Dubreuil), who, though early middle-aged, doesn’t really have a profession, definitely bothersome to his bed-ridden autocratic father. And he doesn’t have a spiritual life either, as it takes more than half the movie for us to learn that Felix is Jewish. His spoken language is French. Anyway, his father dies, and Felix wanders the Montreal streets. By coincidence, he passes Meira on the sidewalk, and confronts her with his religious failure. Somehow, these two connect, the only thing they have in common is their obvious unhappiness. And that they speak to each other an uneasy English.
Filmmaker Groux gives us almost no backstory on either protagonist, and there’s a reason. What we know about the interior lives of the main characters mirrors what little they know about each other. And yet they manage to fall in love. It stretches credibility that Meira would dare climb the stairs to the apartment of a man who is not her husband. Whatever, there’s a great moment when, in the apartment, Meira commits the awful sin, a violation of everything sacred in the Ultra-Orthodox world. She dares look into the eyes of a man. She’s not supposed to do that, even to her spouse.
Soon, we have an old-fashioned love triangle, and I commend the filmmaker for having some sympathy for the plight of the ultra-religious Shulem. He’s far more passionate about keeping his wife, even when she has strayed, than is the likable but passive Felix. We see all this in a black-comedy fight in the streets, where Shulem leaps on his rival, flails away with lots of ineffective punches, while Felix just lies there taking it.
In his Boston Globe review, Ty Burr complained that this movie was needlessly slow in the telling. I felt that Félix and Meira is needlessly discreet. Do our lead couple ever dare make love, considering her Hasidic identity? Or even kiss? We don’t know, because Groux shows us only scenes in which they stand about apartments fully clothed, and never smooching. The most we see is, in the boldest sexual scene, them feverishly holding hands.
Still, Félix and Meira is a decent, intelligent movie, something that would be embraced at a Jewish film festival. And you can’t get better than Israeli actress Yaron, who already triumphed as a married Hasidim in the heralded Israeli film, Fill the Void.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.