When I heard there was a new romance about Hasidic Jews in Montreal premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I was instantly intrigued. And then it won the award for Best Canadian Film. What I hadn’t expected was that it would be such a touching, sweet, and thoughtful story of the heroine’s journey to emancipation. The film follows Meira (Hadas Yaron), a married Hasidic woman in her early twenties, who seems to be suffering from depression. Her religion no longer brings her joy, and all the patriarchal rules make her feel confined and imprisoned. Her devout husband, Shulem (Luzer Twersky), is commanding but not affectionate. He also takes little part in the care of their infant; she’s surreptitiously taking birth control pills so that she won’t be forced to have the gaggle of kids that’s expected.
When Meira encounters Félix (Martin Debreuil), a French Québécois man in her neighborhood who is grieving the loss of his father, an unexpected connection forms. He treats her like an equal with valid ideas and agency, and he offers her tenderness and understanding she’s never experienced. It’s enough to make her consider seriously leaving her community, something that’s clearly been on her mind for a while but that she hadn’t been able to act on.
Writer-director Maxime Giroux explores the ways in which all of the characters feel trapped in roles forced on them and the way they’re able to help each other find freedom and happiness. We also see the ways in which the mores and lifestyle of the French Québécois community, which is right in Meira’s neighbourhood, has started to seep into her consciousness and her view of the world. Félix and Meira is a classically shot film with long takes and many closeups, emphasizing the connection or disconnect between characters. The two-shots of Félix and Meira during their courtship reveal a real sweetness between them. I sat down with Giroux to talk about creating a realistic depiction of the Hasidic Jew community in Montreal, the predicaments of the characters, and the film’s wonderful musical choices.
Seventh Row (7R): The film feels to me very much like a very Montreal film, like in some ways it couldn’t be set somewhere else.
Maxime Giroux (MG): For me, it is totally a Montreal film. When I present it New York or a place where there are some Hasidic people, they think that it’s universal. A lot of people think it’s a film that can be placed in a lot of different religions or a lot of different places in the world. But for me, it’s totally local. It’s my neighbourhood. It’s in French and English and Yiddish. Even in Israel, most people don’t speak Yiddish. They speak Hebrew. So you cannot be more Montreal than that: it’s cold; it’s winter-time; it’s grey; it’s depressing.
7R: I guess a lot of the main actors are not from Montreal.
MG: Hadas [Yaron who plays Meira] is from Israel and Luzer Twersky [who plays Shulem] is from Brooklyn. But the rest of the ex-Hasidic community who act in the film — there are five in total, two from New York and three from Montreal. Like, the cousin, she’s from Montreal. Those people really helped me to do this film. Without them, it would have been impossible to do this film. I had read things in books so I knew that in the morning they had to wash their hands and pray. I knew that they had to put one foot in front of the other one and one shoe before the other one. But I never saw it in my life. I’m not there in the morning with them. So when Luzer Twersky did it, the first scene where we shot that, he was just doing what he had done for 22 years. It was pretty easy for him and maybe pretty painful also. But for me, it was the key for making that movie. It would be impossible to take normal actors for that.
7R: What language was the script in? Were there any challenges with working in multiple languages and with a cast that wasn’t fluent in all of them?
MG: First, we wrote the script in French. Then, it was translated into English, and then it was translated into Yiddish by Luzer. The second challenge was on the set because I had to speak in English with my actors most of the time. But at the same time, I discovered it’s way easier to do a film in English than in French.
English is the universal language of cinema, music, and stuff like that. You can say stuff in English that you cannot say in French, because it sounds too cheesy. For example, if I do a translation of Radiohead’s lyrics in French, it’s ridiculous. We cannot sing like that. Even Leonard Cohen, if you translate that into French, like literally, it doesn’t work. In English, it was super easy to work with the actors. It was way easier to work in English or Yiddish than in French. It’s a big reason why everywhere in the world does music in English. It’s way easier than doing music in Swedish or French.
7R: How did you decide on the costumes? Especially for Meira, I thought that you really got a sense of her personal style, even though she’s really confined in what she can actually wear. She’s very chic.
MG: Men are all the same: they all wear the same thing. But women, it’s something different, especially when they are in the house. I was surprised to see that, but there are some trends. Every year, there’s a new collection. Some women in some communities are more trendy than the others. And their clothing is super expensive. So we went to Brooklyn, and we went to some stores where they sold those kind of things. I was with Patricia, the costume designer, and together we chose the wardrobe for Meira. We had two challenges. First, trying to have some things that are accurate, that is true. But also, we had a small budget. The film was made with half a million dollars, which is nothing. We had so many people who needed to have costumes. We went with the 2013 collection.
But it’s true that, in a way, Meira is really, in French, we’d say “coquette.” She’s really cute with her clothing. And it’s something that I didn’t feel when I was not looking at them, when I was living in the neighbourhood. But now that I am interested in them, I can see that women are trying more and more to have their own personality. I guess that they are influenced by the women in the neighbourhood. They want to be cute. Those women are 18, 19, 22 years old, and I feel that more and more they look at other women. They talk to other women, non-Hasidic women. Even in the last two years, some women look at me for a few seconds, which is totally new, because ten years ago, it was impossible. So I think it’s changing also in their community.
7R: There’s no technology that marks the era. You don’t see any cell phones. You don’t see any computers. Even when they’re listening to music, they’re listening to records. So it took me a while to figure out that it was actually present day.
MG: Yes, it is in 2014. The reason that I did it like this is that Meira and her community, they really live like they were living in 1950 or 1960. They don’t watch our TV shows. They’re not supposed to go on the internet except if they are going for business. But more and more, they are going on the internet. Felix, the Québecois, he’s also a bit old school. He doesn’t accept the new way of life, which is about more competition, more money, more always. And that’s why he doesn’t feel well in his society. He is a loner. Some people can say he’s a loser. But why is he a loser? Because he doesn’t want to play that game, our game of the capitalist consumer and competition. For me, he’s an old school guy.
I still know some people who don’t really use cell phones and don’t have their Apple computer at the cafe. I still know some people like that. Especially these guys that are 40 years old. It’s true that people of 25-years old, there are no people like that anymore. But in my generation, I’m 38 now, I still know some people like that. So that’s the reason why we think it’s maybe not 2015. But at the same time, we didn’t change anything in the apartment for that. The apartment we rent for Felix, it was like this. And same thing for the father. So some people really live in those houses.
7R: There are these two songs in the film. There’s the Wendy Rene song that plays multiple times in the movie and the Leonard Cohen song towards the end. They both have a pretty important and prominent role in the film. How did you choose those songs?
MG: For Wendy Rene, this song was in the first draft of the script. It was there from the beginning. As soon as I knew that I will do this film, and Alex Laferrière, the co-writer, knew that she will listen to “Goy music,” non-Jewish music, I decided she will go for soul music, and music from African-American black women from those eras. Those women were probably sons and daughters of slaves, and they decided to sing and even take a guitar, and play a guitar like if they were men. When I heard this song, I felt that it was what Meira felt inside of her, and I wanted to be able to express that at the end of the movie.
Same thing when she goes dancing in the Latino bar in New York. The woman is dancing and she is really free in the way that she dances. For me, it was another time it’s a woman who is just free, who just does what she wants and feels comfortable. It’s a kind of model for Meira.
Leonard Cohen came to me when we were in the editing room. I just felt that moment needed some music to give it a little bit more emotion. I liked the fact that it’s the Jewish Montrealer singer. And the story of this song, you know, that’s talking about this love triangle. This song was just perfect for that moment of the film.
7R: In the scene towards the end, when Shulem goes to see Felix, it was the first time I felt like I really got some window into how Shulem was feeling. We spend a lot of the film thinking about how Meira feels very trapped and alone. It’s kind of a sweet scene, but it’s also patriarchal. When you were writing that scene, what were you thinking about, as far as the purpose of that scene and putting it together?
MG: That scene was the most difficult one to write. It’s strange, because I think it’s the heart of the film, even if Meira is not there. Everything is in that scene. We understand that, in a way, Shulem is not as bad as we thought. I think he understands that his wife cannot live in that religion, that she cannot have those boundaries. We understand that he needs those boundaries. The story of Felix and his father is similar to that of Meira and Shulem. So when Shulem is reading the letter for Felix, he’s also reading the letter for him, you know, which is a kind of irony.
When Shulem says, “Please take care of my wife,” when we were writing that, we were like, “Oh my god, this is big. This is pretty much impossible.” But when we presented the film at the New York Jewish Film Festival a few months ago, there were a lot of ex-Hasidic members in the room. One woman came to me, and said “I’m an ex-Hasidic woman. I was cheating on my husband. At one point, I left my husband, and he went to the guy, and he said the exact same thing to him.” So I was like, “Oh my god.”
At the same time, it’s true that it’s really patriarchal. He goes to see Felix to tell [him to take care of Meira]. I was really afraid of this scene. And at one point, there was an edit without the scene. You’re always trying to cut scenes, because you think it’s too long. But now I understand that it’s the scene that is the heart of the film.
7R: To what degree do you think Shulem is happy in his religion at the end?
MG: That’s a good question. That’s the first time someone asked me this question about Shulem. They always ask me the question about Meira. But is he happy with his religion? I don’t think so. He was born into that religion. Like me, I was born French Québecois, which means, yeah, I’m happy to be a French Québecois, and I live in French. But at the same time, I would prefer to be an English person. It would be way more easier for me. But what can I do? I have to live with that all my life.
It’s the same thing for him. You know, some French Québecois, they decide to leave: they go to Toronto, New York, anywhere. Me, I decided to stay in Montreal. I will always stay in Montreal even though I would prefer to go somewhere else sometimes. But I’m afraid. I think he’s a little afraid of going somewhere else where he doesn’t have such boundaries and he has no limits, even if we do have limits in our society. He’s afraid of that. He needs those boundaries. It’s the opposite for Meira. She doesn’t want those [boundaries or limits]. She doesn’t need them. I don’t think Shulem is really happy, but I think he needs it.
7R: Is that part of what interested you in the film, looking at how women are treated in religion?
MG: For sure. For me, the story of Meira and her emancipation is the story of my mother. My mother is from Quebec in the 1960s, and it was really Catholic hardcore. It was really different from now. At one point, this generation became feminist, and they decided to put away the church. It’s the story of my mother. It’s the story of every woman in every country in every era, and it’s still going to be the story of the woman in 10 years. Just look at what’s happening right now with religion and women. It’s a disaster, and we’re there doing nothing. We’re just like “Yeah, freedom of religion.” Yeah, it’s true, they have the right to believe in any religion, but let’s try to be equal, women and men.