Several days ago, I received an email from a young man. He was torn, he wrote me, between his desires to leave Hasidic life with its myriad restrictions, and the uncertainty of the unknown secular world. I suggested he reach out to Footsteps, an organization that assists ultra-Orthodox Jews transition to secular life, and which offers individual counseling to help with precisely such decision-making.
He couldn’t do it, he said. “If I go to Footsteps, I’m afraid it’ll bring me closer to making a choice.”
What this man feared, it seemed to me, was not only the uncertainty of leaving but the act of choice—having to decide between the unhappy but familiar and the world of endless possibilities. Every man or woman who leaves the Hasidic world is confronted with choices like these, and it is this dilemma that is at the heart of Felix and Meira, a new film by Canadian director Maxime Giroux, which opened in U.S. theaters last week.
Meira is a young woman in Montreal’s Hasidic community, who meets Felix, a Quebecois drifter grieving over the recent death of his estranged father. A relationship develops, while Meira's husband Shulem—who finds out about the fling—stands bemused, unable to fathom what is happening to his wife and family. Meira, in the meantime, toys with overtly rebellious behavior—wearing jeans, visiting a nightclub, and meeting her lover in a hotel room, where, in one of the most sensual scenes in the film, she briefly removes the wig she wears over her closely cropped hair. (Many Hasidic women shave their head and wear wigs after marrying.) Soon she has to decide: should she stay within her cloistered Hasidic community, or follow Felix into an unknown world filled at once with possibility and uncertainty?
Felix and Meira is the story of one Hasidic woman, not Hasidic womanhood; this is not a woman's rebellion against religion, but the story of a wife and husband badly paired, who simply want different things out of life. Shulem wants the life he was born to live. A typical Hasidic young man, he wants to study, pray, raise children, and maintain his good standing within the community. His wife wants more, but he does not understand her. "Why must you humiliate us?" he asks when he discovers her listening to a jazz album, which we watched her retrieve moments earlier from its hiding place beneath the sofa. What Shulem doesn't know is that Meira is also taking birth control pills in secret. (The couple already has one child.)
We get glimpses early on that Meira is restless, and somewhat troubled. She has a habit of playing with mousetraps, pulling back the spring to watch it snap back. "Can you stop that?" her husband asks, with evident restraint. "I like the sound it makes," she says, and we are as irritated with her as her husband is. Played with supreme skill by the Israeli actress Hadas Yaron (who learned to speak Yiddish for the role), Meira is in search of something, though she doesn’t seem to know what that is.
Her character is even more sharply illustrated in a small scene early in the film that achieves a masterfully cinematic effect. Meira is again scolded by her husband for listening to secular music, and in response she falls faint onto their living room floor. We expect Shulem to rush to call an ambulance. Instead, he says calmly: "Don't be childish. I can see you breathing." Meira—her body in crumpled and collapsed form—responds: "That can't be, because I'm holding my breath."
This is where you start paying attention. Meira is not a one-dimensional figure with traits plotted along the dots of common Hasidic woman stereotypes. She’s given a voice and a psychological profile that is at once endearing and exasperating. Shulem, too, while possessing fewer distinguishing characteristics, is well cast; he comes across as balanced, having neither great passion nor great dullness. His equanimity may not stir in us great sympathy, but we cannot dislike him either; even in those moments when he loses his temper, such as when he encounters his wife with her lover and proceeds to hurl flailing and ineffective fists at the suddenly hapless Lothario, we kind of see Shulem’s point.
Shulem’s character is played superbly by Luzer Twersky, who is a real life ex-Hasid from Brooklyn, and his own experiences are evident in the film’s meticulous authenticity. He contributed significantly to the script, and also consulted on cultural details, and it is therefore no surprise that this film is unequivocally the best Hasidic-themed movie ever made—at least in the U.S.—and there have been many attempts. That it rises above the farces that were Holy Rollers or Fading Gigolo or A Stranger Among Us might not be saying much. But this movie achieves something more real, more touching, more credible even than otherwise decent films, like A Price Above Rubies or even—and I'll say it—The Chosen. This is not to say that Felix and Meira is a work of absolute cinematic perfection, but it is exquisite in its own way, and, where most other Hasidic-themed films have failed, this one, with its melancholic realness and quiet ambition, achieves something truly unique and noteworthy.
Meira seems both touchingly innocent and at times so alarmingly neurotic. But she is merely unhappy and bored and restless, all of which seems rooted not in the particularities of her lifestyle, but in her personality and circumstances. Her life seems monotonous, but monotony is a human condition, not a Hasidic one.
As a romance, this film is a peculiar one: There are moments of sensuality, but nothing that rises to heart-stopping passion. There is some infatuation, but it is mostly one-sided, on Felix’s part, and we don't quite feel its strength. Mostly, it feels like a sad situation for all involved, which makes it all the more potent, because if only passions were more inflamed, if the heat were only turned up slightly, the solution might appear more obvious—who can deny the power of love?—which is exactly what the film does not give us, thus making it an even more wrenching tale.
In one unforgettable scene, Meira catches sight of two lovers through a window, in their bedroom as they remove each other's clothes. Meira is out in the dark and cold, watching the heat and passion beyond the windowpane of a strange home, and here we get one of the most eerily apt uses of Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack: "It's four in the morning," Cohen sings, the tune mournful, "the end of December.... New York is cold, but I like where I'm living."
Life may be dull, and cold, and wintery, but it's what I know, we can see her thinking, and what's the alternative anyway? Meira is wrestling not with any person or community or belief system so much as she is wrestling with herself, constrained not by physical or even circumstantial barriers, but by the knowledge that she has the power to completely upend her life, but is it towards bliss or disaster—who is to know? As is too often true, what holds us back is not a lack of choice but the weight of it. It was Sartre who said we are condemned to be free, and it is freedom that is often more tormenting than constraint. And while choice often exists more readily than we acknowledge, so do consequences, and in Meira's case, what she lacks are the tools to weigh the options.
Still, it is as if she has finally awoken, shaken out of her stupefied monotone, alive but lost, and racked with indecision. The film eschews the assumption that Meira is meant to follow Felix for happiness. She is torn precisely because she has seen a glimpse of the outside world, tasted its appeal, likes some of it well enough, but has the good sense to know that her current life isn't a bad one—it is merely dull. And we, too, are left to grapple with this: What would we advise, if Meira came to us?
The answer, of course, is different for each individual, and such is the bleakness of life, that the future is unknown, and so we are burdened by choice, and the freedom to make it—“condemned,” as Sartre said.