When it comes to tales of forbidden romance in the movies, audiences tend to expect a certain amount of passion. They want sexy stories about couples whose desire for one another burns up the screen, so we never question that they must be together no matter what the cost. But French-Canadian director Maxime Giroux's somber romance "Félix and Meira" takes a rather different tack. The film, which won Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, depicts an affair between a shy, young Hasidic woman and a wayward, middle-aged agnostic. By its nature, their love is a slow burn, requiring a certain amount of patience from viewers. Despite its leisurely pace, the film offers a sensitively drawn tale of love and faith, and the ways that either can be used to ward off the loneliness in life.
When we're introduced to Meira (Israeli actress Hadas Yaron, star of 2012's "Fill the Void" -- another drama about Orthodox Jewish culture), there's no question that she's unhappy. Stifled under the repressive patriarchal customs of her religion, she rebels in quiet ways, sneaking birth control pills, listening to forbidden R&B records, and sketching in her notebook to occupy her time. She doesn't fit in with the other wives in her community, having nothing in common with them aside from the religion they were born into. It's the woman's role to bear their husband many children; that Meira and her devout husband, Shulem (Luzer Twersky, himself a former member of the Hasidic community), have only a single child is viewed as failure of her wifely duties.
Meira meets the flirtatious Félix (Martin Dubreuil), and there's a spark between them, though it takes some time for her to even speak to him. A loner by nature, he's felt particularly adrift following the death of his estranged father. Both are feeling lost, and their relationship brings a connection and sense of fulfillment lacking in every other aspect of their lives. As they spend more time together, she opens up slowly; she realizes undiscovered joys, like playing ping pong and trying on a pair of jeans for the first time. The Orthodox custom of women not being allowed to look another man in the eyes builds to a nice moment where Félix and Meira's eyes meet for the first time. As their connection deepens, Meira becomes tempted to chase after this feeling of gratification, and seriously considers leaving behind her husband, her community, and perhaps even her child.
Giroux's screenplay (co-written with Alexandre Laferriere) is distinguished by a deep empathy. The film never condemns the actions of its characters, and refuses to demonize Shulem, who clearly loves his wife even as she sometimes bewilders him. Torn between the love of his wife and his religion, he's an ultimately tragic figure, a product of his environment but just as subject to mistakes as his partner. This refusal to judge lends various shades of complexity to a film that consistently walks the line. The plot proceeds in a sometimes orchestrated fashion, and there's an odd, misguided scene in which Félix disguises himself as a Hassid in order to infiltrate a service. It's never clear what Giroux is intending with this sequence, and the result is less comedic than merely perplexing.
Though "Félix and Meira" is set in present-day Montreal, for long stretches it's easy to forget that you aren't watching a period romance, so austere is the setting and aesthetic. Giroux is fond of telling his story through long, patient takes, and cinematographer Sara Mishara paints the film in muted tones throughout. There's an oppressive feel to the look of the film that mirrors the characters interior states, with dark (sometimes overly so) frames that use mostly natural light and outdoor scenes that play out under chilly, overcast winter skies.
"Félix and Meira" opts for tenderness over outright passion, building to an ending that's infused with a quiet melancholy and a bit of a nod to the ambiguous, uncertain conclusion of "The Graduate." Mustering the courage to start down a new path doesn't necessarily make the next steps any more certain.