In Quebec, the term “two solitudes” once described icy/cozy relations between the English and French. But in Maxime Giroux’s sublime “Felix and Meira,” which closes out this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, the phrase seems apt for the Hasidim and hipsters of Montreal’s happening Mile End neighborhood, coexisting without actually engaging.
The film’s title characters cross those lines — and many more — in Giroux’s wintry film, whose acute sense of place registers as strongly as his finely drawn characters. Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize Hadas Yaron, who plays the rebellious Orthodox wife Meira; in Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void,” another frum drama, she played another Orthodox woman facing difficult choices.
“Felix and Meira” won Best Canadian Feature honors at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival; it opens wide in May. The Forward caught up with director Giroux as he shuttled between meetings in Old Montreal.
Michael Kaminer: What kind of research did you do in Montreal’s Orthodox community, which seems highly insular?
Maxime Giroux: When I started, I was living in Mile End. I was a typical French Quebecois, someone who didn’t know anything about them. And even though I saw them every day of my life, I was a little naïve. And we were naïve when we started writing the script. After doing research online and in books about Hasidim, we started to understand it would be really difficult. So after completing our first draft, we started meeting ex-members of the community in Montreal and New York. We also met some people in the community, and talked with them about relationships, love, religion, life.
I was pretty scared going into this. As a goy, if I can say, it was pretty dangerous for me to do a film like this. It’s not a documentary, but I wanted it to be pretty close to what’s lived in this society.
As an outsider, what were your impressions about Montreal’s Orthodox community?
I make films because I’m curious about people. Most of them are about people I don’t know or understand. When you walk in the street, you see these people who don’t want to talk to you or be with you, all dressed in black, totally austere. You think they’re just like that.
But there are beautiful things — joy, community, love, generosity. There’s a lot of stuff there that Quebecois society, and Western society, has thrown away — religion, community, family. We’re really selfish right now in Quebec.
There have been tensions between the Orthodox and neighbors in areas like Outremont. Have there been any reactions from other French Quebecers to the film?
What’s been surprising is that people come to me and only talk about positive things. At the end of the movie, everyone always has tons of questions about the community. That was my goal. I want people to know more and learn more about the community. I can’t say everything about them in one hour and 30 minutes. I wanted to make people curious. When you’re curious, and you meet the other, you always find something beautiful. The only reason the Quebecois are upset about some things the Orthodox are doing is because they don’t know them. When you know them, it’s totally different.
You cast Hadas Yaron from “Fill the Void” as one of your leads. Did that film affect any choices you made with your own movie?
I actually didn’t want Hadas in the movie specifically because she was in “Fill the Void,” to be honest. I wanted to find someone else. She’d already done a Hasidic woman. But it was difficult to find someone. And my producer did a casting without my permission, let’s say. He included her. And after 15 seconds, I knew she was the one. She learned Yiddish and French to do the movie. Felix is a French actor [Martin Dubreuil] I’ve known for a long time. Her husband in the movie is played by an ex-Satmar from Brooklyn [Luzer Twersky]. I met him in New York. He helped us a lot with Yiddish translations. He helped Hadas learn Yiddish for the role. And we have four other members of the community in the film.
The moment Meira’s wig gets removed is almost unbearably intimate. How challenging was it to film?
At first, in the script, that was a typical movie love scene where they’re probably making love for the first time. We realized it would be more sensual to remove the wig — it would probably be the first time someone had touched her hair. It was a really sensual thing to shoot. We realized it was probably the most interesting scene in film. Something happened with the actors, too. And I know people in the audience like the scene a lot.
Montreal itself is a character in the film. How would you describe that character?
It surprised a lot of people when I showed the movie in other countries, and even the rest of Canada, that we had that big of a community — something like 15 thousand people. It was important for me to set it in a real neighborhood. In Quebec, there’s still a big problem with the French-English thing, but we’ve also got a lot of different cultures, and it’s working. For me, it was important to do a film about that in Montreal, in Quebec, in 2014, 2015. It’s also about those people. They also live in my city.
Montreal elected its first Orthodox Jewish city councilor, Mindy Pollak, in late 2013. Any idea if she’s seen the film? I think it covers her district.
I don’t know. I hope she will. Even though normally, she’s not supposed to. That’s the irony and the sadness of the thing. The fact that she was elected surprised me so much. It’s a good thing for Montreal and the community. I’ll try showing it to her for sure. She’s a nice person; we’ve met a few times.
Was your own journey in making this film as profound as that of the characters?
This subject changed my vision of what cinema should be. It should not just be about doing film. It should be about meeting others. I met other people. I met a community. And I’ve changed. My life changed. I really want to do another one, maybe a sequel. It’s going to be tough for Meira. You can’t lose your religion in one day. It’s not possible.
You’ve sold the film to 15 countries, including France. Considering events in Paris, are you nervous?
I’m going to Paris next week. I don’t know whether the environment is good or bad for the film. But I do think it’s a great time to be releasing this film.