'Felix and Meira' ('Felix et Meira'): San Sebastian Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Opposites attract -- very slowly

In French-Canadian director Maxime Giroux's latest, a married Hasidic woman in Montreal falls for an eccentric man who's about to lose his father

A married Hasidic woman and a single and penniless man in early middle age who has just lost his very rich father slowly -- very slowly -- fall for each other in Felix and Meira (Felix et Meira), from French-Canadian director Maxime Giroux. Like the director’s previous feature, Jo for Jonathan, this is a minutely observed story of great modesty that thrives on transformations so tiny, the film deserves to be seen on the big screen. However, beyond local and festival engagements, this unspectacular story of the forbidden attraction between a very patient man and a reticent woman will be very hard to market.

Felix (Martin Dubreuil) has come back to the family mansion to see his ailing father, who’s on his way out. They haven’t seen each other for a long time and there’s a sense that Felix’s last-minute visit is something he does because it’s the proper thing to do, rather than because of any need for closure for whatever may have separated them. After his death, the devil-may-care Felix isn’t even necessarily interested in his inheritance; when his sister tells him she’ll give him access to the money only if he comes up with a decent plan to invest or use it, he seems not all that concerned.

Family is supposed to be everything for Meira (Hadas Yaron), who’s married to the very religious Shulem (Luzer Twersky), with whom she has a small child. But here, too, Giroux and his regular co-screenwriter, Alexandre Laferriere, signal that the life that would logically be laid out for them doesn’t quite fit the protagonist. Meira doesn’t want any other children -- much to the shock of a fellow Hasidic housewife, who mutters "But it’s our duty!" -- and she loves music, much to the exasperation of Schlumi, who tells her to "turn these distortions off" and to "stop behaving like a child" when she falls down and pretends to be dead.

It’s inevitable that these two fundamentally unhappy characters will recognize something of that discontent in each other when they run into each other several times over the course of a couple of days in the mixed Montreal neighborhood where they both live. Though Felix is something of a happy-go-lucky guy, his father’s death has made him perhaps more aware of his need to live for something or someone — possibly Meira, whose attraction to Felix is complicated not only by the fact that Felix is godless, but also by the fact that her husband is essentially a decent, God-fearing man. To further complicate matters, they don’t really speak the same language; Meira speaks Yiddish and Felix speaks French, forcing them to occasionally converse in English, though the film's treatment of their language differences is not always coherent (Meira occasionally speaks French).

Giroux largely takes the time observing the two adults getting to know each other. Indeed, there’s a sense that Meira, especially, needs that time to ease herself into something as reckless as an extramarital affair. Even so, the pacing of Giroux and his regular editor Mathieu Bouchard-Malo (he also cut recent Quebec title Love in the Time of Civil War, another observational film with little narrative meat on its bones) often feels a tad too unhurried, since so little happens from one minute to the next and there’s not enough backstory or character information for audiences to fill in all the silent moments.

The gold standard for film featuring extramarital affairs in ultra-religious Jewish communities, Amos Gitai’s Kadosh, offered an exciting new variation on the usual stories of marital infidelity within an otherwise extremely rigid framework dictated by the laws of faith and age-old customs. Despite offering much less of an inside view of a strictly religious group, Felix and Meira is more conventional in many ways, though it does offer a more realistic take -- one that feels more in step with the 21st century -- than the events depicted in Rama Burshtein’s recent Fill the Void, in which Yaron starred as a woman who, after some contemplation, happily opts to marry her deceased sister’s husband, as the Scriptures prescribe.

As in Fill the Void, Yaron is a luminous presence whose face is mesmerizing even if it isn’t always readable. Opposite her, Dubreuil, who also starred in Giroux’s first feature, Sophie, offers solid support, though the exact impact of the passing of his father on his character remains somewhat buried. The small supporting cast is solid.

Cinematographer Sara Mishara, also a Giroux regular, here adopts a look that highlights the inhospitable nature of the outside world in general and Montreal in winter in particular, with little light and colors that are intentionally bleak and cheerless (her work on Romeo Eleven, which was set in Montreal’s also rather strict Maronite community, couldn’t be more different). The film’s look, which is clearly a reflection of the characters' emotional state as much as the reality of the Montreal climate, is key in making it believable that the titular protagonists would finally be seduced by what little human warmth they can find in their apparently inhospitable worlds, and it's commendable that the film manages to do this without ever suggesting that religion is necessarily the cause of their unhappiness.

Production company: Metafilms

Cast: Hadas Yaron, Martin Dubreuil, Luzer Twersky, Anne-Elisabeth Bosse

Director: Maxime Giroux

Screenplay: Maxime Giroux, Alexandre Laferriere

Producers: Nancy Grant, Sylvain Corbeil

Director of photography: Sara Mishara

Production designer: Louisa Schabas

Editor: Mathieu Bouchard-Malo

Music: Olivier Alary

Sales: Urban Distribution International

 

No rating, 105 minutes

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