Sunday, May 3, 2015
With a slew of stories of people abandoning their religion coming to the public eye, out comes a movie circumscribed around a woman leaving her shtetl.
This is not just another tale of a person losing their religion. This is not just another tale of forbidden love. And this is certainly not a fabliau. To a person who is not accustomed to foreign films, it may even seem unsettling. To my special lady, this movie was "Too French!" She admittedly has never seen a French film. I've seen "The Red Balloon." I've seen enough European art films to be familiar with the genre, but not intimately.
The protagonist of the film, played by Hadas Yaron, is Malka--or Meira in French (corrected: Meira is not a French name, it is Hebrew. Je ne parlais pas Francais, so I assumed that just like I have an Engish name and a Hebrew name that are both different, Meira was a French name. Thanks Menachem and Smadar). She is married to Shulem, a young Hassidic man played by Luzer Twerski, who may arguably be a tragic antihero. Unfortunately, Shulem's character is left almost nearly underdeveloped. But then we have Felix, a secular middle aged Jew played by Martin Dubreuil.
Meira/Malka is trapped in a Hassidic enclave in Montreal. Shulem starts off as the overbearingly authoritarian husband. He doesn’t beat her. He doesn’t raise his voice to her. But he does castigate her constantly. He does not like the fact that she draws in her little sketchbook. He does not like her listening to records of secular music. He especially does not like their infant daughter, Elisheva, being corrupted by the secular music.
The record that she’s so fond of is “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” by Wendy Rene. It’s a slow, slightly somber but bouncy R&B number with Booker T on the organ. The song is very appropriate for the theme of the movie. After all, none of the three characters in the movie are happy. And the way the movie ends, they may never find happiness.
The character who is most richly developed is Meira. When Shulem reprimands her, she lies on the floor and plays dead (perhaps what Charcot/Freud would have called hysteria. Perhaps psychosomatic). At first, Shulem is not receptive. As a product of his upbringing, he thinks he’s being a good husband. But he doesn’t realize that the tighter his squeezes, the more she slips away. He does not realize that she’s secretly taking birth control. He knows she’s in pain, but does not have the capacity to ameliorate her.
Enter Felix. Felix is also a sad man. He is single, estranged by his father, is close with his sister. When we first meet Felix, he visits his dying father. But the father doesn’t even acknowledge Felix, or that he even has a son. When the father dies, Felix does not know how to feel.
Later, Felix sees Meira with Elisheva in a kosher pizza shop. Meira is drawing a picture. Felix likes it. He tries to initiate a conversation. She avoids him. It takes Felix awhile before Meira finally decides to go up to his apartment.
The plot may seem formulaic. But the saving grace of this movie is director Maxime Giroux. The camera shots do a great job capturing the mood. The snowy streets of Montreal, the thin streets of Williamsburg, the spacious air in Venice, and even the dinginess in Shulem’s apartment, the dim lighting in Felix’s father’s house, the ambiance in a dance club, et al. Most importantly, while the movie is very character oriented and the dialogue is well done, I think it is the visuals that make this movie memorable.
The pacing was slow. Modern audiences will not appreciate this. The crowd that should probably see “Avengers: Age of Ultron” will most certainly be bored. But those who have the patience will enjoy this movie.
There are several moments worth analyzing:
1. When Meira is folding laundry with some of the other Hassidic ladies. One of them (Suri) notices that Meira is not okay. She asks what’s wrong. Meira won’t say. Suri, thinking it’s that Meira wasn’t having any more children, tells her that she should not worry, God will eventually oblige. To which Meira finally cracks and says she doesn’t want any more children.
Word gets back to Shulem. Shulem, instead of trying to console her, tells her that she shouldn’t confide things like this with the other ladies. This was one of those moments were Shulem may have been able to fix their relationship. But he did what was expected of him as a Hassidic man. If he had only realized how badly their relationship was derailed, he could have tried marriage counseling, therapy, perhaps medication. But thus the flaw in his character. He continues to forbid her to express herself. And he is more concerned about what everyone else will think of him (and their child) if she continues to behave this way.
2. When Meira tried on her first pair of blue jeans. To this I have personal insight. I’ve been in the presence of former ultra-orthodox women publicly wearing pants for the first time. The scene took place in a hotel overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Here, Felix was beginning to really enter her life. She even takes off her wig for the first time in the movie. Her hair looks flat, matted, like it hasn’t seen the light of day. But there is a beauty to it. And the dim light from the hotel window makes her look a bit like a fallen angel beginning to recover. As a cathartic moment, it was not overdone. In fact, I feel like that scene deserved much more prominence than it did. But I’m guessing that the director preferred it remained what it was. Another moment.
3. When Shulem finally meets Felix. He saw a sketch of Felix in Meira’s notepad. He tore it up. He asked Meira who it was. Meira wouldn’t say. She just locked herself in the bathroom, her safe place.
Shulem arrived in Williamsburg. Meira told her cousin she was going out to Lee Ave. to buy a present for Elisheva. She didn’t realize that Shulem was following her. Shulem sees Meira holding Felix’s hand. He immediately accosts Felix. Now Shulem was clearly not much of a fighter; the manner in which he was slapping Felix looked like a kid bitch slapping another kid over a lollypop. But Felix didn’t fight back. I would have made Shulem angrier, perhaps punch him more. When Shulem realized who Felix was, he stopped.
At this point, all became clear to Shulem. Suddenly, he begins to notice that it is partially his fault that he has been cuckolded. I would have expected him to seriously explode, to go nuclear. But he didn’t. He became overly pensive and melancholy.
3. One motif early on in the movie is Meira playing with mousetraps. She loves the sound they make when they snap. Definitely a cry for help. We see a mousetrap in the cupboard.
Toward the end of the movie, Shulem hears rattling in the cupboard. He opens up. There is a mouse caught in the trap. The mouse is struggling. The mouse looks at Shulem in pain. Shulem says in a dejected voice that the world is a cruel place. And the trap with the mouse falls out of the cupboard.
This image represents the situation of all three characters. Shulem does not have sympathy for the mouse. In many ways, he was the one trapping Meira. But he was not willing to free the mouse. He was not willing to change himself and make her untrapped. His reaction to the mouse, as his feelings toward his wife now, were that the world is a cruel place.
4. When Shulem finally confronts Felix. How awkward it must have been. Shulem did, after all, assault Felix. Felix did invite him upstairs and offer him wine. Shulem refused the wine, even though Felix assured him the wine was kosher as it was his father’s (the one indication we have that Felix actually is Jewish). What Felix doesn’t realize is that an Orthodox Jew won’t even leave a wine bottle open around one who doesn’t keep Sabbath. Yes, I’ve had religious Jews refuse to drink wine with me because I do not keep the Sabbath.
This scene is perhaps the scene where we finally get to know Shulem best. We never really got much of a glimpse into his psyche yet. He does inform Felix that if Meira does go back to him, she will have to completely abandon the community and everything she knows. Their baby will grow up motherless. He does not want this. And also, he does love Meira. He is dead without her.
He is dead without her. The scene before that, Shulem asked her why she no longer plays dead. She said she’s already dead inside. So now, Shulem realizes it’s too late. She could never be happy with him. Felix was as close as she would ever get to being happy.
And so, Shulem just makes Felix promise that he will make her happy. That he will take care of her.
5. Sort of a sub-plot in (4). Felix had a letter from his father. He never read it. He was clearly harboring anger, as the last time he saw his father, his father acted like he didn't even have a son. So before Shulem comes over, we see Felix folding the letter into a paper airplane and trying to burn it (unsuccessfully). He finally managed to get the nose ablaze when Shulem came in. He extinguished the fire.
Toward the end of their conversation, Shulem asked Felix about the letter. He noticed the letter was folded into an airplane and slightly charred. Felix explained that it was from his father, he didn't want to read it, and was trying to put it aside. Shulem asked if he could read it. Felix allowed him.
This is the one moment in the film where Shulem speaks French. When he speaks to Meira, he speaks Yiddish. When he speaks to Felix, he speaks English. It is interesting to note that Meira and Felix also mostly speak to each other in English even though Meira clearly understands French, but I don't think Felix understands Yiddish. But I digress: Felix reads the letter in French. The letter said that the father was losing his mind and his memory. So before he completely gave in to dementia, he wanted to apologize to Felix for the way he treated him.
This letter might as well have been from Shulem to Meira at this point. And Meira might never read that letter either. So much of this movie was about bad relationships, be their filial or matrimonial. Most if it is miscommunication, or total lack of communication. When Shulem read the letter, he was opening a line to one of those relationships. But at this point, it was too late for Felix to ever really forgive his father, as his father was no longer with the living. The tragedy with Shulem is that it may not have been too late for him. But as indicated in (3), Shulem had already resigned himself to thinking that the world is just a cruel place.
In the end, Meira takes the baby and steals away to Venice. Venice was Felix’s happy place. And it should have been for her. But it’s made clear that she’s still not happy. And nor is Elisheva.
But Shulem is even more broken. The last we see of him, he puts on that forbidden record, “After Laughter (Comes Tears).” And then, he lies on the floor playing dead, just like Meira used to. I felt for Shulem. Poor Shulem. Aside from his character deserving more development, he really did care for his wife. But as a result of his upbringing and his surroundings, he did not know how to properly treat her. Who knows, if they weren’t in such a restrictive environment, or if he was more open-minded, they probably could have been a good couple. But we may never know. He was so caught up in being a good Jewish husband, that he didn’t bother to listen to her. And so he lost her.
The movie ends with Felix and Meira in a gondola going down a canal. The gondolier is singing an Italian song. They have no idea what’s going to happen next. But clearly, this is not a happily-ever-after. Meira still has to live with the guilt that she’s completely left everything behind. And will Felix make a good father to Elisheva? We see how Felix is as a fling, but how is he as a husband? The ending of this movie raises many questions.
I would give this movie 3/5 stars. The Good: The visuals and the acting. The Bad: Could have used better character development. The Ugly: Script could have used a bit more workshopping. Some parts seemed a bit formulaic, bordering on cliché. If not for the fact that the subject is one that is hardly touched in cinema (Hassidic women going Off the Derech), it might have less appeal.