Why the great minds of the MPAA have chosen to give “Felix and Meira” an R rating is a mystery that eludes understanding. Yes, there’s a nude sex scene — spied in passing through a window by Meira (Hadas Yaron), an Orthodox Jewish woman agonizing over whether to cheat on her husband and her community. That anonymous, deliriously sensual couple is a literal window into Meira’s fears and desires; elsewhere, the movie is so chaste
that it finds its greatest moment of eroticism in the removal of a woman’s wig.
And erotic that scene is, because the Montreal-based director and co-writer Maxime Giroux understands the stakes. “Felix and Meira” observes the slow-burning forbidden romance between Meira, a dissatisfied young wife and mother in Montreal’s Hasidic enclave, and Felix (Martin Dubreuil), a gentle, artistic soul who lives in her neighborhood yet seems lost in life. It’s a hushed affair, often to a fault, and it unfolds on wintry urban streets and in rooms where the drapes are pulled against the light. The movie is specifically about the embers of the human heart trying to kindle a fire in a darkened world.
Both are outsiders, passive-aggressive rebels. Meira waits until her husband, Shulem (Luzer Twersky), has left her alone with their infant daughter Elisheva to put on a forbidden record; a ditzy retro pop song with a nagging chorus, it’s a blast of rude noise. She also draws scenes from life in a secret sketchbook and is initially drawn to Felix by the watercolors he hangs in his building’s entryway. A loner reeling from the death of his autocratic father (Benoit Girard), he’s not so much the family black sheep as its opaque sheep, contentedly living in the cracks — he doesn’t seem to need to work — until he sees Meira at a kosher bakery and senses the discontent seething under her surface modesty.
“Felix and Meira” could have been a big, messy melodrama about the clash of cultures. It could have dramatized the struggle of a woman against a religious patriarchy, or of an artist against a life of ritual. It’s none of those things. The larger Hasidic community is viewed sidelong; Shulem is gradually humanized from an oppressive figure to a man baffled by the behavior of the woman he loves. We know that Felix has a sister (Anne-Elisabeth Bosse), and that’s about it. The focus is on two people out of step with everyone else slowly realizing they may be in step with each other.
The operative word is slow. Giroux and his cinematographer, Sara Mishara, favor long takes in underlit settings, an approach that can yield nuggets of insight into human behavior but that here often turns dull. When is an image held for too long? At what point does a shot’s duration outlast its emotional information? As ardent and earnest as it is, “Felix and Meira” is a test case.
There are compensations. At one point, Meira is shipped off to a cousin in Brooklyn by her angry husband; her child stays in Montreal. The trip is meant as a punishment — a taste of exile — but once Felix joins her in New York, it becomes a test run for a new life. A scene in which Meira tries on her first pair of jeans is played for empathetic low-key comedy, and the requisite visit to Times Square at night has rarely been so tenderly presented. Even in the city’s most crowded place, Giroux makes his lovers seem like the only couple on Earth.
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