Herman is living in Coney Island in 1949, and he isn't very happy. He's a somewhat inherently sad person anyway, living under the shadow of his past as a Polish Jew who barely escaped the Nazis at the end of World War II.
But Herman also suffers from his present domestic problems. Boy, does he ever. To sum it up lightly, before long he will find himself married to three women at the same time.
Other movies might make this situation the butt of light humor or farce, but in "Enemies, a Love Story" there's a lot more going on.
Like most of Paul Mazursky's raunchy comedies (he co-wrote, produced, directed and has a small role), "Enemies" is an uneven affair. Some of it works astonishingly well, some of it falls flat. But in the end, it's both entertaining and thought-provoking more than you can say for most films these days.
"Enemies" begins by showing us Herman's life in Coney Island, living in a rundown tenement building with his wife, Yadwiga. Actually, she's more like a servant than a wife, her slavish devotion both comical and embarrassing. And we eventually learn Herman married her out of gratitude because she saved his life in the old country when Nazis were searching for him.
But he lies to her when he says he's selling books around the country; actually, he's spending time in the Bronx with his mistress, Masha, a concentration camp survivor with whom he's more honest than Yadwiga. Masha is married to a lawyer but eventually hopes to have him grant her a divorce so she can marry Herman.
Before long, however, Herman finds that his first wife Tamara, thought to have died at the hands of the Nazis, is also in New York, and her arrival on the scene further complicates an already seriously complex situation.
Based on the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, "Enemies" is a fascinating story about people who can't come to terms with life after having survived extreme duress. Guilt, more than any other human emotion, is in charge of their lives. And by and large Mazursky's approach, which is by turns comic and tragic, but never to cheap effect, chronicles the events at hand thoughtfully.
But what sets the film apart is the treatment of each character as a fully dimensional human being Yadwiga is devoted and loving, though superficial, and unfortunately reminds Herman of his past; Masha is tempestuous and exciting and Herman truly loves her, though he's never quite sure what she's going to do; and Tamara is intelligent, down-to-earth and knows Herman better than he knows himself. Herman, meanwhile, is weak and scared and tends to let life run him over like a steamroller.
Mazursky has always been at his best when creating vivid characters in such films as "An Unmarried Woman," "Moscow on the Hudson" and "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," and in this case he also has the perfect actors for all four of the key roles Ron Silver as Herman, Margaret Sophie Stern as Yadwiga, Lena Olin as Masha and Anjelica Huston as Tamara. They are an excellent ensemble and give the picture a great deal of its life.
"Enemies, a Love Story" is rated R, earned for its sex scenes, and there is violence in a flashback and one or two profanities.