‘Félix & Meira’: Romance takes its time building forbidden love

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By Bill Goodykoontz | Gannett News Service

In the wrong hands, “Félix & Meira” could have gone off the rails.

Instead, the romance, co-written and directed by Maxime Giroux, is enlightening, if a little slow. Giroux’s refusal to pass judgment on his characters prevents us from doing so, and the film is much more powerful for it.

Meira (Hadas Yaron) is a young Hasidic mother living in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Montreal with her husband, Shulem (Luzer Twersky). She is observant but not especially happy. She struggles under the requirements of her faith — and Shulem’s harsh eye. Unlike the other mothers in the neighborhood, she doesn’t consider it her duty to have as many children as she can, so she takes birth-control pills and hides them from Shulem.

Meira also has to listen to her records in secret; Shulem hits the roof when he catches her playing them — and in front of their daughter! (When he catches her, Meira plays dead, which is equal parts sad and adorable.)

Félix (Martin Dubreuil), meanwhile, lives in the neighborhood but doesn’t share Meira’s — or anyone’s — faith. He’s adrift after the death of his father, from whom he was mostly estranged. One day, he spots Meira and her daughter in a bakery and hits on her.

Thus begins a glacially paced romance. It’s slow-moving in part because Meira isn’t allowed to look men in the eye; when she finally looks into Félix’s, it’s as powerfully romantic as any sweep-you-off-your-feet kiss. Félix’s general lethargy also plays a part.

But he’s patient and persistent.

Meira may not be sure exactly what she wants, but it’s clear she’s not happy with Shulem. A trip to New York to clear her head while staying with relatives winds up like a holiday — Félix follows. She wants to taste life outside her own but doesn’t know how.

It would have been easy to make Shulem the villain. After all, at first we see him controlling his wife’s life, forbidding her from listening to the music she loves, criticizing anything and everything he believes is a betrayal of their faith.

But this is a largely closed community in which that community means everything. You’re all in or you’re out. Although our immediate reaction to Shulem is revulsion, that changes over time. At one point, as Meira and Shulem lie in (separate) beds, he asks, plaintively, do you think that it’s easy for me, having to make excuses for your behavior all the time? He’s not angry so much as heartbroken.

A later meeting between Félix and Shulem proves that Shulem is not necessarily the small-minded man we take him to be. It’s an intriguing perspective, and unexpected.

Giroux shot the film in winter, so everything is cold, reflecting the mood. We practically crave some sort of thaw, somewhere. And although the story ultimately is predictable, the careful-what-you-wish-for developments are reminiscent of the final scene of “The Graduate.” That’s a big compliment.

Giroux should be applauded for taking his time with the story, but he goes a little overboard on the pacing. That’s not a major complaint. If it takes too long to get to the destination, “Félix & Meira” is still worth the trip.

[s3r star=3/4]

Oscilloscopepresents a film directed by Maxime Giroux and written by Giroux and Alexandre Laferriere.In French and other languages with English subtitles. Running time: 105minutes. Rated R (for a scene of sexuality/nudity). Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center and Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.

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