One has to be patient and observant to appreciate the felicities of Maxime Giroux’s “Felix & Meira,” which might once have been described in publicity materials as the story of a romance between neighbors who inhabit different worlds. Set largely in Montreal’s Mile End district, it’s the tale of the romantic bond that gradually develops between Felix (Martin Dubreuil), a carelessly irreligious Canadian and Meira (Hadas Yaron), an unhappy wife in the local Hasidic community.
As the film opens, Felix is visiting his dying father, a wealthy man from whom he’s long been estranged. The old man is barely able to recognize him, but the son seems unmoved by the strained reunion. Meira, on the other hand, is trapped in a marriage to Shulem (Luzer Twersky), whose Orthodox lifestyle stifles her. He’s not cruel or unfeeling, reacting with more exasperation than anger when he comes home to find her dancing to a forbidden record. But it’s obvious that he’s hoping she’ll eventually settle into the wifely role expected in their community, especially in terms of childbearing (they have only one infant son, and Meira will admit to other women that she doesn’t want more children).
The two meet by accident in a diner one day, and Felix begins chatting to her. Meira’s initial reaction is simply to brush him off with the modesty that’s part of her culture. But he persists in greeting her whenever they happen on one another again, and eventually his genial persistence pays off. Though cheating on Shulem is hardly something she intends, Meira haltingly accedes to talking with Felix, and eventually will even look at him directly in the eye—something prohibited by the Hasidic norm. Much of the film simply watches Meira as she opens up to a world she’s never known—letting a man remove her wig, trying on different clothes, watching a television program that features a raucous stage performance, playing a game of ping-pong. It’s less detail-oriented in its observation of the change in Felix, but it’s clear that he too is experiencing emotion that has been foreign to him for a very long time. (Occasional talks with his sister aren’t terribly revealing, though they show a degree of affection between them.)
The film can’t simply keep observing these unlikely partners forever, of course, and ultimately the plot needs resolution, which frankly isn’t handled with the dexterity one might have hoped for. An altercation between Felix and Shulem on the sidewalk, after the latter discovers him walking with his wife, is uneasily pitched between drama and farce, and Felix’s actions after that encounter are depicted in a similarly uncertain tone. The final scenes set in Venice, moreover, strain for an artiness that seems beyond the grasp of Giroux and cinematographer Sara Mishara. Even during this latter stretch, however, there are quietly moving touches. A sequence in which Shulem, returning to their empty apartment, puts on the record that he’d ordered Meira not to listen to, and then promptly falls to the floor—copying the move she’d comically made when he’d earlier discovered her dancing—is surprisingly poignant.
Throughout, moreover, the three lead actors bring considerable depth to their characters. Yaron dominates as Meira, conveying the woman’s struggle with occasional touches of humor as well as pathos, while Dubreuil, though he can’t entirely the opaqueness that lies at Felix’s center, nonetheless invests him with a moving combination of joviality and sadness. Twersky has far less screen time, but gives Shulem a sense of wounded dignity and quiet resignation that’s admirable, given how the community might treat his failure to control his wife. The technical side of the film is modest, but the camerawork and production successfully capture the feeling of cold insularity that the Montreal neighborhood imposes on the characters.
Though it makes a few missteps in the final reel, “Felix & Meira” is overall a sensitive, small-scaled study of two people from very different backgrounds who find love despite all the obstacles society puts in their path.