What’s Under the Hat?: Giroux Proposes Unorthodox Paradox
Confectioned with a what makes us different makes us the same counterargument, Maxime Giroux’s third feature is one that finds commonalities between the profiled insular community and those who are lonely while visibly surrounded by others. And while the improbability of the hypothetically tinged union arguably makes this akin to science fiction matter, the apolitical, unified titular observational drama moves beyond the losing religious faith template with its moving, lingering anti-loquacious stance. Worldly in its reach and neighborly in approach, Félix et Meira is thoughtful tableaux that verberates with unabashedly sensitivity — this is Giroux’s most affecting film to date.
While fertility rates of 50’s & 60’s Quebec have plummeted to dismal rates for most French Canadians, comparatively, Montreal’s Orthodox Jewish community maintain old fashion practices of ensuring there is a next of kin. Just one among the many differences found in this culturally diverse pocket of Montreal, longtime writing team of Alexandre Laferrière and Giroux’s screenplay is void of cliche and satisfyingly delves into the unknown, but its strength is that it addresses the not too apparent merits and benefits of this coexistence. Renowned for its youthful spirit and creativity, the Mile-End in this trilingual (Yiddish/English/Quebecois French) languaged icebreaker pits a young mother stoically, interpreted by unblemished fair-skinned actress Hadas Yaron, against the conformity and assimilation found in tradition. It is not the neighbors per se that are the source of conflict, but toiling with increased doubt, the character of Meira moonlights with, and sometimes mounts small acts of rebellion, knowing that future scolding of various degrees await. Sans the need for a personal backstory, it’s a role that for the young actress is not that far removed from her breakout acting debut part in Rama Burnstein’s Fill the Void.
The arty milieu of the Mile End in Felix and Meira is strategically set in the crispy, below zero temperature months, where protection and warmth is symbolically offered in emitted colors. First beginning with coloring books (here they carry the same stigma as skin magazines) and then transposing itself musically, amiability directionally comes from a loner type. Gently played by Giroux muse Martin Dubreuil, Felix is the one who instigates the exchanges with Meira, and this comes from an outwardly desire to connect on some level. Once he recognizes a vulnerability and solitude mirrored elsewhere other than his own self, like a cat being lured from an alleyway with saucer of milk, he baits Meira, gaining her trust via a shared appreciation for, among other things, a crayoned sketch, some vinyl and finally genuine curiosity.
While his go-to themes of isolation and solitude ultimately created storms with the young protagonists lives of his previous feature Jo pour Jonathan (2010) and was also addressed in his recent tri-rift short La tête en bas (2013), the lost souls here almost cosmically pact and then guide one another (the film’s end credits visually addresses this notion of co-navigation). Giroux’s choice in Yaron proves to be a smart one — she epitomizes the complexities of breaking away from her community and her stringed epiphanies feel legit. While a reference to mouse trap might be a coy device in underlining the scrutiny, and oppressive nature of the secular ties that bind, it’s a chosen b&w footage inclusion of early pre civil rights and women’s movement (we’ll call it the film’s entr’acte) that lingers on past it’s chosen insertion point. Women are indeed capable of strutting their stuff.
Sparse dialogue and the beats help ponders their individual headspaces, but the decidedly intimate framing encloses their spatial separation — with no sources of inspiration beyond her parameters, Meira is treading through uncharted waters. One nocturnal sequence best exemplifies the immensity of their future choices and the worldly boundaries that exist, shot on film and a handheld aesthetic, while the film is rather sombre in approach, there is a playfulness in the menu. Sonically one traditional yiddish track combined with a speckling of comedy where our male protagonist defiantly goes incognito — there are powerful moments that prove there is a certain joy in assimilation.
The gray wintery backdrop matches the garb and the decor, while cityscapes don’t overpower the senses but complement the subtlety — blue jeans et al. Regular contributor cinematographer Sara Mishara once again excels here, offering communist era-like dressed interiors and drab exteriors, while composer Olivier Alary doesn’t distract from the mostly distilled diegetic sounds, but when cued, adds a fervor tempo to the proceedings — essentially life by way of music. The inclusion of a Leonard Cohen track definitely feels apropos.
In a year where the suburbs have been favored lieus in Quebecois cinema portraits (see Stéphane Lafleur’s Tu dors Nicole, and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy), it’s in Giroux’s urbanscape where we find the comfort food, soul food and/or perhaps food for thought, and while most will be curious about what’s under the hat, Félix et Meira is more about lending out a cup of sugar rather than throwing salt on wounds.
Reviewed on September 10th at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival – Contemporary World Cinema Programme. 105 Minutes