Felix and Meira director Maxime Giroux is imaginative enough of a visual storyteller that he doesn’t need to rely on a slew of dialogue to give us a sense of his characters’ inner lives. Meira’s (Hadas Yaron) disenchantment with her constricting Hasidic lifestyle is evoked simply with a shot of her slowly stirring her soup at dinner with a bored look on her face—and the backstory of Felix’s (Martin Dubreuil) troubled relationship with his recently deceased father is cannily doled out in organic bits and pieces throughout the film without seeming clumsily expository. Cinematographer Sara Mishara’s work here often recalls Gordon Willis’s images in the way she bathes many of the Montreal interiors in muted earthy tones and low-key chiaroscuro lighting to evoke a sense of claustrophobic doom appropriate for these characters; when Felix and Meira temporarily flee to Brooklyn, however, Mishara’s color palette becomes noticeably more expansive, with a flood of neon blue most memorably punctuating an intimate hotel scene. This contrast between freedom and imprisonment is also wittily suggested in Olivier Avary’s score, most notably his use of a lone mournful clarinet in the Montreal scenes and the larger orchestral palette he utilizes in the Brooklyn scenes.
Alas, Giroux’s sharp filmmaking instincts aren’t always supported by similarly acute dramatic instincts. Felix and Meira’s dominant tenor of is one of quiet restraint, but there are times when such restraint crosses the line into willful reticence; Giroux seems afraid to even show the two love-struck characters sharing a kiss, cutting away lest such a moment of raging passion puncture the film’s relentlessly dour surface. Some of the ellipses in storytelling in Giroux and Alexandre Leferrière’s screenplay are especially puzzling. Giroux strangely elides, for instance, the moment Felix and Meira decide to escape for a bit from chilly Montreal to spend time together in Brooklyn, leaving one to wonder what Meira said to get her husband Shulem’s (Luzer Twersky) begrudging permission to leave in the first place. Even Giroux’s control of tone falters, most awkwardly is a sequence in the film’s second half, after all these characters have returned to Montreal, in which Felix dresses up like a Hasid in order to try to reconnect with Meira, back under her husband’s control; Giroux’s treatment of this development is so po-faced that one can’t tell whether this is supposed to be comic or not.
Such shortcomings suggest that Giroux hasn’t fully imagined these characters, interested more in arranging them to fit the dramatic plan she has mapped out. This is a shame because Giroux has a deeply resonant core of an idea here, of people either trapped in cultural prisons of their own imagining or yearning to break free from such preconceived notions. But when Shulem ostensibly finally realizes how much he loves his wife in the film’s second half, the audience is forced to take it on faith when he says his life has no meaning without Meira, because we haven’t seen him exhibit a trace of desire or even empathy toward his long-suffering wife. Felix and Meira so intently toes the line between being a film about repression and being itself a repressed work that, by the time Giroux reaches his unexpectedly ambiguous finale, the scene barely registers, more theoretically affecting than emotionally devastating.