The first thing you notice about Maxime Giroux’s “Felix and Meira” are the colors, or lack thereof. There’s a hue missing from the separate lives of the titular characters – Felix (Martin Dubreuil), a French Québécois man who lives largely in golds as part of the gilded cage he’s stuck inside after recently losing his father, who he was never really that close to anyway and yet he feels somehow incomplete, unable to enjoy the sunlight that comes his way, while Meira (Hadas Yaron), a Hasidic woman trapped in a loveless marriage, seems to exist only in greys except for when her cherubic young child brings some warmth to the frame. As suggested by the title, it’s only a matter of time before the two meet, their shades overlapping to create something vivid, but Giroux doesn’t rush them there, studying how loneliness can be a unifying force.
In a way, it was for the filmmaker who lived amongst a Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in his native Montreal, fascinated by what he observed of their customs and curious as to what life was like inside such a clandestine community. Although he never was so bold as Felix, who loudly approaches Meira in a local restaurant, unaware of Hadisic women’s modesty that prevents them to speaking to men in public, Giroux also found himself in a coffee shop talking to his screenwriting partner Alexandre Laferrière when the idea came about to dig deeper into the world immediately around them. The result won the prize for Best Canadian feature at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival and while “Felix and Meira” began making its way around America, Giroux spoke about the serendipity that led him to tell the story, the importance of music and inspiring curiosity in others.
Why and how is a strange question because honestly if you go back 10 years ago to where I was in my life and you tell me that I will do a movie about the Hasidic characters, I would say, “Forget it, I will never do that. It’s not my kind of subject.” But I was living in that neighborhood in Montreal where the film take place and they were my neighbors. I didn’t know anything about them, so it wasn’t possible for me to talk to them and I decided to do a movie because you have to do some research. You have to think about the subject, talk about the subject, and to live with that subject for years. It’s the best way to know more about them.
I was pretty naive like most of the people that I know in the French side of Montreal. It’s not because we don’t want to know about them, it’s just that we are on our side and they are on their side and I would say also they don’t know a lot about us too. The goal of this film was to at one point to show some other side of this community to the people of my community, and I did a lot of talking with the co-writer. We decided that the thing that was a big surprise to us was the [way] women [were treated] and condition of the women in this community. Their main goal is to make babies and then to take care of those children, so we decided [to create the character of] Meira.
We’re the lead actors helpful in ushering you into that world? I’ve read Luzer Twersky, who plays Meira’s husband, was actually a devout Hasidic Jew and of course, Hadas Yaron played an Orthodox Jew in “Fill the Void” even though she isn’t Hasidic in real life.
Luzer is from the [Hasidic] community of Brooklyn and he left the community when he was 22, 23, and he also has two children, so he knows what he’s talking about. As far as Hadas Yaron, at the beginning, I didn’t want her in the movie because I felt she had already done that part [in “Fill the Void”] but she really wanted to do it. My producer asked her to do an audition tape without my permission in a way and when I saw it, she was just perfect. She was totally different than what she did in the other film. For me, it was totally Meira. She did some research on her side and she’s just amazing and focused.
How did the film’s color scheme come about? There’s a greyish haze to it, but it’s beautiful.
The director of photography [Sara Mishara] is a Jewish woman from Montreal and I’ve worked with her now for 18 years. We had this feeling that [“Felix and Meira”] has to be still and also have those colors that we see in the American movies in the 1970s, those immigrant movies where there’s family. James Gray recently did that [with “The Immigrant”] and we wanted to do those kind of color palettes because we felt this community is a little bit stuck in the past. They don’t use a lot technology like us. We discovered naturally everywhere we were going, those colors were there. When we did our research in the field, we saw a lot of times they have curtains in their window so we cannot see inside. We decided to play a little bit with that in the film, like the scene where she’s pulling the record [to play on the turntable] and she’s putting the curtain down. We also used some very old Japanese lens that really are not good, but that made a very kind of old image. It’s not sharp, it’s not perfect.
Since you brought up the record, was there any significance to the music that you chose? The scene where Meira secretly plays Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter Comes Tears” is a great moment of liberation.
Yes, for me, this kind of slow music, especially [with] a woman singing, is something that Meira cannot do. She cannot express herself really and I really like that the fact that in African- American culture the woman can express herself not only in art but in everyday life. They really express themselves. They’re not afraid of this, but this is something that [Meira] cannot do. That song is so powerful and so authentic and true, so she uses the music to express her emotions, a little bit like us. When we’re sad, we like to put some sad music or when we want to have a good night, we put some music that can give us some energy. Music is the most powerful art. More than film, I think. I also like the fact also that it’s an African-American woman [singing] because at one point [they descended] from slavery and then this music helped them go somewhere else.
Was language interesting to work with in the film? Felix speaks French, Meira speaks Yiddish and they find a little bit of common ground in English.
Absolutely, because here in Montreal, our language is super important because we have six million French people around, and more than a million other people who speak English, so it’s important to us to keep this language and fight for that. That’s why it was also impossible for me to have some actor who speak Hebrew in that film, so I asked Hadas to speak Yiddish for this film. She doesn’t in real life, but she learned.
I really think the language is one of the main things that defines a culture and society and who you are. One of the beauties of the world is having so many different languages and more and more people are talking the language of economy, which is English, so when I go see a movie that people speaking their language, I think it’s super interesting, so language is very important for me to keep truthful and authentic.
You really get a lot of mileage out of how you’re able to unveil Meira throughout the film, using the Hasidic belief in modesty to ratchet up the tension. Did you know that would be a good source of drama from the start?
Yes, again, I didn’t know anything about them [initially] and one thing that I discovered is this modesty and [it was important] for me to keep a little bit of that in the movie. Like when Felix played with [Meira’s] wig, I wanted to do a film with this impression that’s not about being loud to make a big statement, but something more subtle because that is more near or close to who they are.
What’s it been like to travel with the film?
It’s incredible because I knew this film would be universal. It’s still a love story and in a way, it’s helpful to story about an immigrant, so a lot of people can relate to this story. It’s also a story about the emancipation of a woman. My mother can relate to this now. I am surprised that everywhere I go, I’ve gotten lot of beautiful responses from the people. I worried that even if I go to a [place nearby like] Quebec, they wouldn’t be interested because they don’t know this community. They live in the countryside. They don’t live in a Montreal or an urban area, but they are really curious about this. I’m really happy with that and proud that the audience has the same curiosity that led me to making this film.