Thursday, July 7, 2016

Convert to Mormonism, Maybe?

Films: Enemies, a Love Story
Format: DVD from Hanover Township Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

One of the problems of doing a series of movies from a large list is that some of those movies are difficult to find. NetFlix is missing a ton of the movies that I need to watch, which means I have to go to other sources. I need to continually remind myself to request those movies from the library when I can—there’s a good 100+ movies I can’t get through the easiest channels. Enemies, a Love Story is one of those movies, and this seems to be a pretty rare one in general—not a lot of reviews on Letterboxd, for instance. That often makes me feel like I’m shouting into an empty room when I review a film like this one.

Enemies, a Love Story is kind of a romance, kind of a drama, and a little bit of a comedy, which means, of course, that it’s none of these things. Herman Broder (Ron Silver) is a Holocaust survivor, who lived through the war by hiding in a hayloft where he was cared for by Yadwiga (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska under the name of Margaret Sophie Stein), his Polish peasant servant. After the war, he and Yadwiga emigrated to the United States and got married, because Herman’s wife had been killed and dumped into a mass grave.

The truth is that Herman has married Yadwiga out of a sense of duty and responsibility. She’s more of a servant than she is a wife. Herman may have a great deal of gratitude toward her, but he’s not really in love with her, which is why he’s having an affair with Masha (Lena Olin), another Holocaust survivor. Masha is also married, to a man named Leon Tortshiner (director Paul Mazursky), who refuses to grant her a divorce. Masha would like to marry Herman, and he’d like to marry her, but in their situation, it just can’t happen.

Things become more complicated with the sudden appearance of Tamara (Anjelica Huston), Herman’s first wife, who managed to survive. Yes, she was shot and tossed into a mass grave, but she lived and crawled out. Now, Herman is technically a bigamist although purely on accident. Then Masha claims to be pregnant and demands that Herman marry her as well. And then Yadwiga claims to be pregnant as well. Terrified to even consider losing Masha, Herman agrees to marry her, which means now he has three wives, with the third one married when he clearly knew he was already technically a bigamist.

As suggested a couple of paragraphs ago, Enemies, a Love Story wants to be a bunch of different things at the same time, which means it’s not really any of them. There’s plenty of room for comedy here, for instance, and there are certainly comic moments in the film. For instance, Masha insists that Herman take her to the Catskills for a vacation. Once there, he discovers Tamara’s aunt and uncle. They are aware at this point that Tamara is alive and know that Herman has married Yadwiga, but they don’t know about Masha, which means that he suddenly has to keep her a secret from people at the same resort. There are also run-ins with his boss, a rabbi named Lembeck (Alan King) who seems to be a template for a modern-day televangelist. Lembeck knows about Masha and invites the “newlyweds” to a party where Herman and Masha run into Pesheles (Phil Leeds), who has already met Herman’s other two wives, making his polygamy public. There’s great potential for comedy in situations like this, but Enemies, a Love Story can’t capitalize on them in general because it also wants to take itself too seriously. And yet it doesn’t take itself that seriously. The film makes a lot of noise about these characters being Holocaust survivors and then leaves that essentially alone and never really deals with it.

I’ll admit from the start that I’ve never been the biggest believer in the talents of Ron Silver. I don’t mind him, but I also don’t really think that he’s always the best guy for the job. Enemies, a Love Story could’ve been handled by a number of different actors in Herman’s role. On the other hand, it’s the three women who make the film. I’m almost always impressed with Anjelica Huston and I absolutely love Lena Olin from about this point in her career through the early 2000s. Both of them were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and I think it’s not a stretch to put Malgorzata Zajaczkowska in the running as well. The three women, their relationships, and how they all deal with Herman, are the real reason that this is a film worth watching.

Ultimately, I find the film inconsistent. It doesn’t know what it wants to be or how it wants to get to where it’s going. Additionally, any ideas that this could be a comedy are completely shattered by the last 10 minutes or so of the movie, that go very dark and very strange. It’s not a bad film, but it’s also not one I think I need to see again, and not one I’d recommend for anyone other than completists.

Why to watch Enemies, a Love Story: Three good performances.
Why not to watch: It’s not funny enough to be a comedy and not serious enough to be a pure drama.


  1. I haven't seen this but I remember when it first came out. I was going to the movie a lot back then, but I missed this one. It was kind of a big deal among some of the "art film" crowd I knew. It got some very good reviews, and I remembered it showed at the revival house a few times over the next few years.

    And then it completely disappeared.

    1. In general, I don't have a huge problem with it essentially disappearing. It's worth it for Lena Olin primarily, and for Anjelica Huston and Malgorzata Jajzczkowska secondarily.

  2. I had a chance to see this in the theatre when it was originally out and I passed for some unremembered reason then was kicking myself years later when I was trying to find it to participate in a discussion of that year's supporting actress nominees. I did finally come across it by sheerest luck but what a rabbit hunt it turned out to be!

    I felt about it much as you did. The women were by and large wonderful, I liked Anjelica Huston best but then I usually do but Lena Olin owned her scenes. I always liked Ron Silver though I never thought he had what it took to be the leading man, at least not on film. I enjoyed Alan King's small bit too, he really should have done more serious acting.

    Overall though now that I've seen it I have no desire to return to this particular well.

    1. I admit that I'm biased toward Lena Olin, especially late '90s/early '00s Lena Olin. The three woman are far and away the reason that this is worth seeing at all.

      It's hard not to like Alan King in general. The same is true of Phil Leeds in his small role. But this is a "one and done" movie for me.