Generally, writer-director Paul Mazursky likes to work in comedy. After all, he had his start in the business as a stand-up comedian, and his funny films have ranged from good (Down and Out in Beverly Hills) to indifferent (Moon Over Parador). But Mazursky weighs in occasionally with heavier stuff; An Unmarried Woman, for example.
I’ll take the thoughtful Mazursky every time. There’s somthing about getting serious that sets his juices flowing, as his latest movie, Enemies, A Love Story, confirms. This may be Mazursky’s richest film.
It’s based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The central character is Herman Broder (played with understatement by Ron Silver), a Polish Jew who survived World War II by hiding in the barn of a sympathetic family of farmers. After the war, he marries the family’s daughter, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein), and they come to New York to settle.
It is 1949, and Herman and Yadwiga live in Brooklyn, where she is essentially his live-in servant He is carrying on an affair with Masha (Lena Olin), a concentration camp survivor, a sexy and slightly unstable woman. Herman is balancing his separate lives when a surprise arrives. His wife.
No, not Yadwiga, but his first wife, Tamara (Anjelica Huston). He thought she had died during the war, but she survived and has arrived in New York. Everything comes together like some classic farce, yet this is not a comedy; this is a film about the mechanics of survival, in war or in life. Many scenes have wonderful humor, but this is a darkly hued tale. Herman is essentially a man who died during the war; his spirit is gone yet he still walks and talks and makes love, like a ghost of himself. Masha tells him, “The truth is, you’re still hiding in that hayloft.” His affairs are not the light pastime of a philanderer, but the only way he seems able to connect with life. His women clearly fascinate him, but he can’t seem to make sense of his situation.
The three women are splendid. Stein is a newcomer who embodies the essence of peasant simplicity. Huston, who has turned into such a fine actress, is both down-to-earth and somehow regal. Lena Olin, who was also a prominent sexual presence in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is unpredictable and mesmerizing. She just won the New York Film Critics’ award for best supporting actress, and it’s difficult to argue.
Mazursky, who does one of his acting cameos in a small but important role, captures a colorful sense of period and place. Enemies has a novelistic texture. Every scene comes alive with a variety of meanings, and nothing is tied off in a simple explanation. That’s probably why this film lingers so suggestively in the mind.
First published in the Herald, January 21, 1990
Maragret Sophie Stein did not make many Hollywood films, but returned to her native Poland and is still working there (aka Malgorzata Zajaczkowska). Of course Lena Olin is also a great actress, but she is a “prominent sexual presence” in Unbearable Lightness, so please forgive me. I wish Mazursky had made more non-comedies, though he did pretty well by those.