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‘Enemies, A Love Story’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 19, 1990


Paul Mazursky
Ron Silver;
Anjelica Huston;
Lena Olin;
Margaret Sophie Stein;
Alan King;
Paul Mazursky
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"Enemies, A Love Story," Paul Mazursky's soulful adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, has a spirit that's nearly impossible to describe -- a kind of robust, almost lusty fatalism. The movie, which is set in New York in 1949, is a dark comedy about ghosts, specifically Jewish refugees who have escaped the camps and come to a booming postwar America but are still half-enslaved by tragedy, still suspended between the living and the dead and not at all sure which they prefer.

They're lost, these people -- floating, though weighed down with sorrow. This is the magical effect that Mazursky manages to create in this worldly, sensuous, wholly remarkable film. Somehow Mazursky finds comedy in their efforts to remake their lives in a baffling new country -- a comedy enriched with despair. There's a sophisticated worldview in this combination, one that's best expressed by the shrug of a man who can no longer believe in God but goes on living anyway, without purpose or hope -- the great resigned shrug of the Jewish philosopher and the Jewish comedian.

In "Enemies," Mazursky is both comedian and philosopher, and his shrugging man is Herman, a Polish refugee who, during the war, was hidden away from the Nazis in a hayloft. His protector was his servant, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein), who fed him and carried out his waste and eventually came with him to America to become his wife and live with him in Coney Island, in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel.

Still, though the war is over, its memory is painfully fresh. Everywhere Herman looks he sees Nazis; in everything he hears the pounding of their boots. And though he knows the moment of danger has passed, he can't help crawling inside himself. Ron Silver plays Herman and his performance emphasizes the character's haunted, dark-eyed furtiveness. Silver is perfect for Herman. Spiritually, he's the right size, and he has just the right touch of recessiveness and princely self-absorption.

Too afraid to come fully alive, Herman settles for a collection of half-lives. And to maintain them, he lies to everybody. The story he presents to his naive wife, who still behaves as if she were his servant, is that he is a traveling bookseller, off constantly on trips to the wilds of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. In truth, this timid man works as a ghostwriter for a swindling rabbi (Alan King) on Central Park West and uses the invented book-selling venture as a cover for his regular visits to the Bronx to see his mistress, Masha (Lena Olin).

As the movie progresses, Herman's web of falsehoods and half-truths becomes hopelessly, hilariously intricate. "Enemies" doesn't begin as a farce, but it develops into a heartbreakingly resonant one. As complex as Herman's life is with only two women to deal with, it becomes even more so with the reappearance of his first wife, Tamara (Anjelica Huston), who he had believed was murdered in the camps along with their two children. Watching Herman's face as his towering, back-from-the-dead wife clomps toward him down a long hallway, you can see immediately that for him, this so-called miracle is yet another in a series of cosmic jokes of which he is merely the butt.

The sequence in which these two are reunited is perhaps the most deftly staged, movingly played scene in any film in recent memory. But then again, nearly every scene that follows is on the same exalted level. Later, when Herman and Tamara gossip and tease one another in her uncle's kitchen, the conjugal connection between them is painfully vivid; from that one scene, we learn everything there is to know about their marriage, and everything about why it cannot be sustained. We know what binds them together as well, just as we know what ties Herman to Masha.

Another survivor of the camps, Masha is a tempest of neurotic emotion. Everything about her is scaled large, including her sexuality. In their lovemaking, Masha and Herman go at one another passionately; they hold nothing back. Yet their ardor is mixed with desperation, as if they were trying through sex to reawaken themselves and climb back into life.

With Huston, Olin and Stein in the roles, the movie almost becomes a study in the varieties of feminity. Both Huston and Olin are magnificent, and in her smaller, less dimensional part, Stein is only slightly less impressive. As Tamara, Huston has a Zen archer's bull's-eye instinct for a wisecrack. With her skinny black eyebrows dancing suggestively above her eyes, she's a mordant, sexy comedian, firing off angry zingers.

Olin's provocative, husky-throated performance, on the other hand, has a nearly killing absence of irony. Olin is a ravenously expressive actress; she's a genius at presenting us with her characters, stripped down to their essence, to their most basic desires. As Masha, she seems almost uncannily invested in her emotions, as if somehow she were experiencing a purer concentration of what comes to us only in a much diluted form.

In the film's last half-hour, as Herman's elaborate contraption of lies begins to break down, Mazursky keeps everything in equilibrium. After nearly constant nagging, Herman takes Masha as his third wife, but the pressure of maintaining yet another deception becomes too much to endure. The manner in which the director, who adapted the Singer original with Roger L. Simon, builds to his final resolution is masterfully precise; when the closing image is reached, every nuance seems fully expressed. Mazursky has made glorious movies in the past -- "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Next Stop, Greenwich Village," "Blume in Love" -- but here he has everything in place. What he's captured is the way life naturally careens between tragedy and farce. In "Enemies," the story he tells is richly eccentric, jubilant and deeply skeptical all at once. He has made, in other words, a deeply, fully human work.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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