Meira (Hadas Yaron) is a young Hasidic Jewish mother in Montreal slowly drowning in plain sight. Living within an Orthodox community, and feeling suffocated by the strict rules of her faith, Meira’s daily life is one of sadness. She no longer finds joy in traditional religious tunes sung at the dinner table and has no desire to have further children like the other wives in the community. Instead she, much to her husband Shulem’s (Luzer Twersky) chagrin, rebels by listening to soul music and secretly taking birth control pills. Meira longs for the sense of freedom that a man like Félix (Martin Dubreuil) takes for granted.
By contrast, Félix seems to embody everything Meira longs for. He is single, roams wherever he pleases and shamelessly hits on women like Meira at local shops. However, Félix’s outwardly confident demeanor is masking the pain of his estranged father’s death. An atheist, Félix is drawn to Meira partly because he hopes that her faith will provide some insight on how to cope with his grief. Though Meira rebuffs Félix’s flirtatious ways at first, a genuine friendship unfolds between the pair. One that forces Meira to question whether she is willing to remain in the only community she has ever known, or risk it all for an uncertain future.
Unlike most forbidden love stories, the central relationship in Félix and Meira builds slowly and delicately. Maxime Giroux’s film is more concerned with Meira’s desire for freedom than it is about passion for the flesh. The fact that Meira plays with mouse traps, because she “likes the sound”, is not by accident. It is one of the few things in life that she has control over. Giroux skillfully shows that Meira’s is living in one big mouse trap. One in which the trap is set by culture itself. This is why even confidential discussions with other wives manage to make its way back to Shulem.
The fascinating paradox in Félix and Meira is that the pair is drawn together by their inability to connect with those around them. Meira feels isolated within her tight community; while Félix’s grief is magnified by the depressing solitude that comes with living alone. Giroux develops their bond with great sensitivity and care. A simple scene such as the one where Meira looks Félix in the eye for the first time, a cultural no-no, carries powerful weight in the context of the narrative. The sensual tension between Meira and Félix builds gradually and intensifies, but never is exploited. Giroux wisely avoids many of the conventions that one would expect from this type of film.
Though Shulem is initially shown as demanding, and slightly archaic, Giroux makes him a rather sympathetic character. Luzer Twersky portrays him as a man who deeply loves his wife, though he does not always understand her, but is ultimately a product of his faith. While Giroux is careful not to paint the Orthodox Jewish community with a villainous brush, he uses characters like Shulem and Meira to suggest that fewer restrictions might actually go a long way towards reinforcing the principles and structure that the religion practices. This point is further emphasized through the inner conflict that Meira’s feels regarding her relationship with Félix.
Capturing both Meira’s thirst for independence, and overall naiveté, Hadas Yaron is sensational in the role. Her chemistry with Martin Dubreuil is undeniable, but ensures that Meira is seen as a woman who is defined by her own traits and not the men she is associated with. She is convincing even when the film gets a little too convenient towards the end.
Félix and Meira is a riveting and layered love story that is both intelligent and complex. The characters that inhabit Maxime Giroux’s film feel like real people and not merely caricatures. Elegantly tackling themes of isolation, grief, independence and religion, Giroux weaves together a romance that is both rapturous and captivating. Félix and Meira is one of the year’s hidden gems.