I first saw this film at the 2008 Philadelphia Film Festival and I was completely blown away by it and it has finally been released onto DVD. With its hyperlink structure, fascinating characters and distinctive visual and aural style, In The Arms Of My Enemy is the reason I go to movies in the first place! This is by far the best film from the recent Philadelphia Film Festival that has not been released in the Philadelphia area theatrically.
In The Arms Of My Enemy begins with two AWOL Cossacks, Jakub (Adrien Jolivet) and his younger brother Vladimir (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) swimming in a small river. Unbeknownst to them while they frolic, two young horse thieves, Roman (Gregoire Colin) and his younger brother Elias (Francois-Rene Dupont) are creeping up and in a flash, they steal the Cossacks’ horses. This leads us directly into the first section of this three-section film, all of them connected by this incident at the river.
In this first section, we meet Jakub and Vladimir and discover how they came to be on that riverbank getting their horses stolen. The time is the early 19th Century, somewhere in Eastern Europe and Jakub and Vlad are two dirt-poor souls with no apparent family and nothing else to keep them together than their own brotherly love. Jakub is slight and easily excitable, very much the kind who over-compensates for being physically tiny and while his brother Vlad is taller, he is the more sensitive of the two boys and we get the feeling that Jakub has been stepping in to protect Vlad his whole life. But right now, times are extremely tough and these two boys have been literally reduced to stealing crusts of bread for sustenance along with the occasional pickle from the tables of customers at a roadside inn.
Just then, some Cossacks come into the inn and ask if there are any men brave enough and strong enough to join them? Jakub thinks that he and Vlad should join the Cossacks, although Vlad is very apprehensive, but Jakub convinces him that, with winter coming, if they were with the Cossacks, they would at least be clothed and fed. Convincing Vlad to join was one thing, convincing the Cossack officers to let them join is another. One Cossack officer is particularly cruel towards Jakub because of Jakub’s diminutive stature and because Jakub’s mouth is often twisted in anger, the officer thinks Jakub is mentally handicapped, but he relents and lets the two boys join.
Cossack training is very tough (think of the basic training scenes in Full Metal Jacket, but not so hygienic) and Jakub, because he is so quick to anger, finds himself frequently in trouble and spends a good deal of time locked up in a sweatbox for punishment. When Jakub is out of the picture, Vladimir is often beset upon by the other boys and when he’s not being raped, he is being mentally tormented and abused. After much mis-adventure, Jakub and Vlad graduate and soon come to realize that being a Cossack is pretty nasty business. Neither one is happy about all the wanton murdering and pillaging that Cossacks are required to do and this leads them to go AWOL and eventually to the river where their horses get stolen.
We then move into the second part of the film where we learn about Roman and Elias. They are also poor and have no family but make a small living as thieves and they maintain a very nifty hideout buried in the forest floor. We learn that Elias has some kind of gift that allows him to communicate with animals, especially horses whereas his older brother Roman is the more practical of the two as well as the more cynical.
We learn about a time when they were boys when through Roman’s carelessness and cowardice, Elias received a severe injury to his right leg and now walks with a pronounced gimp. But it has made Roman hyper-protective of Elias and he gets jealous of Elias even meeting other people.
This all takes us back to the original horse theft scene and during this confrontation, Vlad is killed by Roman and this sets us up for the final part of the film where Jakub, consumed by revenge stalks Roman and finds that he may be able to get to Roman through his brother Elias. But Elias, who is unaware of Vlad’s death and of who Jakub really is, sees Jakub as basically a decent person, which he is, albeit on the excitable side. This does not comfort Roman who understands it will be either kill or get killed with Jakub. The whole film now hurtles towards a devastating finale and then on to a reconciliation that is beautiful, amazing and completely surprising; at least it was to me.
What really makes this film work as a superior piece of film craft, aside from the gorgeous cinematography, the believable settings and costumes along with the fantastic music, is the undeniable charm of the four leading actors. Without them, this film would be nothing.
All four are gorgeous in their own unique ways but looking at the DVD cover art, I fear this film will be marketed towards a gay demographic, which would be a shame. That would limit In The Arms Of My Enemy solely to its homoerotic appeal and, although that is definitely there, this film has more to offer than just masculine eye candy. This film has a very original human drama and looks deeply into the kind of close relationships between brothers that you don’t see in many other films.
In The Arms Of My Enemy is very well made, considering its low budget. Director Micha Wald only had some forests, fields and rivers to film in, yet he manages to make an extremely visually interesting piece. It is amazing just how much emotion and narrative can be conveyed by simple looks from the actors and easy, elegant camera moves.
This is truly one film you will have to see to appreciate and I sincerely hope more people do.