The romantic journey of two characters from opposing worlds drawn together stretches back to Shakespeare, but “Felix and Meira” makes no grand gestures about the timelessness of its tale. Instead, Quebecois writer-director Maxime Giroux gentle drama about a young Orthodox Jewish housewife and the secular man who draws her away from her religious life treats its subject matter with a refreshingly humble air.
While there’s little doubt early on that crestfallen Meira (Hadas Yaron) would do well to leave her domineering Hasidic husband (Luzer Twersky) and embrace the advances of the similarly alienated bachelor Félix (Martin Dubreuil), Giroux’s slow-burn narrative — co-written by Alexandre Lafferiere — takes nothing for granted, least of all the prospects of a happy ending.
Instead, Girgoux gives weight to the possibilities of kindred spirits from different worlds bonding over universal emotions, regardless of the consequences. Easily the best romantic pairing of the year so far, it’s a thoroughly somber movie, but hints at uplifting possibilities around each corner.
Two Worlds Collide
Mostly set in Montreal’s insular religious Jewish community in the midst of a frosty winter, “Felix and Meira” unfolds with a blend of languages that defines the melting pot dynamics of the region: Yiddish, English and French all crop up at various times, effectively conveying the personal desires constantly lost in translation.
In its delicate first act, Giroux examines the young Meira’s sullen home life, where she cares for her babbling toddler while her stern, bearded husband spends his days studying Talmud and supporting their family. In the quest to maintain a pious existence, Meira’s husband prevents his wife from any semblance of joy; when he comes home to find her listening to Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter,” he scolds her for bringing non-religious material under their roof. There’s an uneasy sincerity to his rage that amplifies the problem at hand — he prioritizes the traditional values at the foundation of their existence at the expense of her personal satisfaction, and she has no other option but to obey. That’s when Felix finds her.
Using the same unassuming style, Giroux finds parallels in Felix’s solitary life, which is upended by the sudden death of his estranged father. Inheriting enough money to continue wasting his days around town, Felix encounters Meira on the street and ultimately manages to befriend her. Isolated by his grief, Felix finds an outlet in the possibilities of new companionship, hardly putting much thought into it — but it’s that recklessness that eventually provides Meira with a fresh contrast to her restricted lifestyle. There’s nothing entirely new about the chemistry between them, but Giroux does service to the gentle process of awakening that defines their peculiar connection.
Having established the degree to which Meira’s world is dictated by limitations, Felix’s plucky advances carry the whiff of a subversive agenda, but the movie never drops its tranquil, melancholic atmosphere. As a result, the ensuing attraction between the two leads is both entrancing and mysterious, provoking questions surrounding not only the would-be couple’s needs, but the reverberations they have on the people around them. To that end, Meira’s husband emerges as an unexpectedly fascinating centerpiece during the later scenes, less oppressive villain than misguided puritan undone by his commitments.
However, it’s Meira’s evolving curiosity about the world beyond her grasp that provides the drama with its crucial turning point. Threatened with exile from her closed-minded community, her struggles often take on the dimensions of a thriller, as a psychological entrapment hovers in many scenes. But those same feelings are offset by the tender quality of her burgeoning attraction to Felix.
Lacking the eloquence of the rambling couple in Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, Felix and Meira can only speak in vagaries about their feelings. At times they come across like underwritten archetypes, but the superficial aspects of their scenario are elevated by a pair of deeply empathetic performances. Giroux excels at implying his characters’ internal processes. When Meira asks Felix to describe being single, there’s no question about the direction her mind has gone. In another scene, the very feat of making eye contact with another man who’s not her husband marks a pivotal turning point in their bond.
An Alien Life
Despite the couple’s lack of eloquence, Meira finds the words to epitomize her conundrum when she finally announces, “I don’t know where I am anymore.” Eventually, she undergoes a physical transformation that has a touch of science fiction to it: No longer required to wear a long skirt or hide her hair beneath a wig, she’s awed by the alien possibilities at her disposal, and uncertain of their merits. That disconnect goes both ways: When Felix attempts a silly rescue effort by infiltrating Meira’s community in a Hasidic costume, he fails to blend in. The takeaway is rather simplistic — that the couple is only truly content when allowed to be themselves — but Giroux ruminates on that theme with a measured, sophisticated perspective.
Far from the only recent movie to explore romantic frustrations in Orthodox Jewish communities — the Israeli drama “Fill the Void,” which also starred Yaron, touched on a similar conundrum — “Felix and Meira” stands out as one of the few to pit ancient rituals against the broader possibilities of the modern world.
“Felix and Meira” opens in New York on Friday and Los Angeles on April 24.