Three years ago, a widely acclaimed Israeli drama called Fill The Void presented secular cinephiles with a worldview they rarely see on-screen, defending certain Orthodox Jewish traditions (arranged marriage and patriarchy, basically) that outsiders tend to consider archaic at best. The film’s writer-director, Rama Burshtein, who’s a Haredi Jew herself, explained in interviews that she wanted to avoid the usual route taken by movies about such communities, which are “always about someone either trying to get out or someone from the outside trying to get in.” The new French-Canadian release Félix & Meira, about the romantic relationship between a married Hasidic woman and a gentile man, is exactly the kind of film Burshtein was talking about, with all of the attendant predictability. For an extra dash of irony, the film features Hadas Yaron, who also starred in Fill The Void, playing a role that’s the inverse of her role here.
Writer-director Maxime Giroux (who’s made two previous features that haven’t been released in the U.S.) wastes no time in establishing that Yaron’s character, Meira, is unhappy with the Orthodox lifestyle. As soon as her husband, Shulem (Luzer Twersky), leaves for work, she pulls a soul album from underneath the couch, exulting in forbidden cultural fruit. Her dissatisfaction makes her easy picking for Félix (Martin Dubreuil), a bachelor who lives in Meira’s Montreal neighborhood and is feeling especially lonely following the death of his father. Meira puts up some resistance when he initially hits on her (while she has her infant daughter in tow) at the kosher deli, but it isn’t long before she’s shyly knocking on his door and asking if she come can come in and listen to some records. Shulem ships her off to relatives in Brooklyn when tongues start wagging, but Félix quickly follows her there, renting a hotel room, buying her blue jeans, and taking her dancing. They fall in love, but leaving Shulem would mean permanently separating father and daughter.
To the film’s credit, this decision eventually becomes more difficult than it initially seems. Shulem spends most of Félix & Meira behaving like such an intolerant, emotionally abusive asshole that it’s impossible not to root for Meira to run off with Félix, even though their chemistry is more asserted than demonstrated. (Giroux, who also wrote the screenplay with Alexandre Laferrière, is extremely coy about whether the affair becomes sexual; the most intimate thing that happens on-screen is Felix removing Meira’s sheitel and caressing her real hair.) Eventually, however, Shulem shows up at Felix’s apartment for a frank discussion that reveals a depth of feeling he hadn’t previously expressed, and that conversation leads to a final scene that’s impressively ambivalent, in what one might call the Graduate tradition: Blank “now-what?” stares from two people who got what they thought they wanted. The complexity takes a long time to manifest itself (and is undermined by, for example, a sequence in which Félix tries to see Meira by disguising himself as a Hasidic Jew, with fake beard and sidelocks). But Félix & Meira eventually proves to have more in common with Fill The Void, and with Burshtein’s effort to depict Orthodox Judaism as more than just a women’s prison, than it had appeared.