Kiss of the Spider Woman
Reviewed in July 2001
Director: Hector Babenco. Cast: William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga, Jose Lewgoy, Milton Gonçalves, Nuno Leal Maia, Fernando Torres, Herson Capri, Denise Dummont, Antônio Petrin, Ana Maria Braga. Screenplay: Leonard Schrader (based on the novel by Manuel Puig).

Photo © 1985 Island Alive Pictures/HB Filmes
Kiss of the Spider Woman is one of those films whose ideas are so richly provocative, and successfully realized often enough, that their considerable missteps don't impact the full viewing experience nearly as much as they should. There is something transfixing about this film, as seductive and playful as its title, and like many good seductions, the pleasure afforded more than compensates for the lurking suspicions that you're getting less than you think you are. It's a trick, this movie, but a fabulous one.

William Hurt, surely one of the least likely actors ever to be cast as a gay Latin American man, won an Oscar as Luis Molina, the incarcerated window dresser who bides his time spinning the narratives of his favorite screen melodramas. The grandiloquent awfulness of these Z-grade spectacles, which escapes Molina entirely, is more than apparent to Spider Woman's audience, who are treated to sepia-toned, purposefully and ecstatically stilted enactments of these lurid intrigues. Moreover, as noted by Molina's cellmate, a Marxist insurrectionist named Valentín Arregui (Raul Julia), the plot of Molina's favorite film is only superficially superficial, barely bothering to veil its status as Nazi propaganda fiction. (Briefly, a Vichy-era French chanteuse is romanced by a dashing Aryan officer, plagued though she is by rapacious, decrepit Resistance agents.) Valentín, already disconcerted by Molina's full-scale embrace of "feminine" behavior—crying jags, fluttery fingers, hair barrettes, the works—uses Molina's refusal to perceive the sinister politics of his movies as firm evidence of his unspoken prejudice that homosexuality itself is a politically naïve, even frivolous position.

The plot of Kiss of the Spider Woman, confined though it largely is to the men's 8' x 9' cell (excepting, of course, the fake-movie interludes), thus manages to pack all sorts of Big Ideas into its central narrative: beyond just sexual politics, radical Marxism, and the ideological power of entertainment, Leonard Schrader's dexterous adaptation of Manuel Puig's rapturous novel also brings in South America's troubled history with dictatorship and torture, prison intrigue and espionnage. Curiously, and beyond what either the script or the novel requires, the casting of the white Hurt and the Latino Julia brings to bear upon the material the complex significations of race. The fact that this racial disparity was revived in the 1993 musical adaptation of the same story—a white actor named Brent Carver played Molina, and a Latino actor named Anthony Crevello played Valentín—suggests that North American interpreters of Puig's tale have a hard time grasping ideological conflicts except when they are mapped across the issue of race. This casting practice may be debatable (it's hard to quiet an age-old misgiving that plum Latino roles are reserved for non-Latins), but it adds some undeniable charge to the Raul Julia character's relentless associations of himself with what is genuine, honest, and natural, as against Hurt's dubious and artificial impostorhood.

It is to its credit, certainly, that Kiss of the Spider Woman translates its notions of class conflict, penal injustice, and the crucibles of Latin America's oppressive regimes to an English-speaking public that tends to get nervous about any one of those subjects. Director Hector Babenco, previously best known for the Brazilian drama Pixote, conveys perfect unease with a few scenes reminiscent of Costa-Gavras involving a hooded prisoner in a cell across from that of our protagonists. The crossings between the "fake" world of Molina's movies and the "reality" of the prison are fruitfully blurred, especially when they both begin to turn on the issues of unlikely heroism and how to recognize a spy. At the same time, the tone never grows so fanciful or so enthusiastic in its metadramatics that the more brutal certainties of Molina and especially Valentín's predicaments are called into question. These examples of overall structural soundness are both enabled and reinforced by Mauro Alice's suggestive editing, John Neschling's playful score, and the amazing success of cinematographer Rodolfo Sánchez to avoid the fatal claustrophobia of shooting a film entirely in one room.

That the acting in the picture strikes me as one of its shakier aspects is ironic given that the film's important crossover status in 1985 was largely achieved through the acclaim showered on Hurt, Julia, and Sonia Braga. The accolodes are not in every way undeserved. Braga, sensational in what is usually described as a triple role, is best in her campy/sincere scenes as Leni LaMaison, the heroine of Molina's blithely anti-Semitic romance. (Braga's scenes as Valentín's upper-crust girlfriend and the titular arachnid are impression-making but very brief.) Hurt never fully escapes the serious improbability of his casting, and he too often stretches vowel sounds a fathom beyond the breaking point. Nor is he a very convincing cryer, and yet, there is something about the perennial quiet arrogance of Hurt's playing—in every role, he seems privately, priggishly ecstatic about what a Sensitive Guy he is—that suits Luis Molina, this unapologetic provocateur, this well-chiseled but ungainly outsider, who walks like a stork and knows he isn't getting any younger.

Raul Julia is persuasive with much less fuss as the enraged but adaptable Valentín, but it is precisely at those moments when Valentín is supposed to have "adapted" most—i.e., as his disgust at Molina's sexuality has eroded—that both actors seem undisguisably uncomfortable. The film is no less clenched in Molina's flashback scenes with Gabriel, a straight, sad-eyed waiter on whom he once nursed a crush. It is not clear whose machismo is getting in the way of a story that is supposed to propound an acceptance of homosexuality (likely suspects include the actors, the filmmakers, the studio, and probably all of them), but the resultant compromise of the material is a constant burden to the film's would-be liberal sensibility.

And, for all that has come before, the ending of Kiss of the Spider Woman is largely a mess. Rather than explore the tantalizing interpenetrations of government politics, sexuality, fiction, and real-life transformation, the film opts for a bunch of crudely dumb visual symbols: Q–What do gay Marxists wear?, A–Red neckercheifs. The film's discomfort with its own final act borders on the deranged when the camera starts adopting the perspective of the anonymous police operatives who are trying to annihilate both of our protagonists. The switch in visual sympathy to these agents of evil can only be explained by the fact that the filmmakers at least seem to have agreed on how they would see the world; by contrast, no one seems sure what to make of Molina or Valentín by the end, but filmmakers don't win any honest points by admitting they've lost a hold on their characters.

Sifting through all the implications of Kiss of the Spider Woman's last half-hour is likely to be confusing, and possibly infuriating, all the more so because narcotic hallucination abruptly gets thrown in as a variable in the anarchic collapse of the film's point of view. Still, if the jigsaw pieces of Kiss of the Spider Woman don't always fit, even the mismatchings of its heady fragments generate some provocative pictures. The film's current re-release in New York and Los Angeles theaters may not extend into your own local mall, but it's still worth hunting the film down at a rental store. After all, one lesson we take away from Kiss—and perhaps this is why it leaps so successfully over some brazen flaws—is that movies can yield strange, powerful memories whenever and wherever we see them. Grade: B+

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Hector Babenco
Best Actor: William Hurt
Best Adapted Screenplay: Leonard Schrader

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Actor (Drama): William Hurt
Best Actor (Drama): Raul Julia
Best Supporting Actress: Sonia Braga

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Best Actor (Hurt)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actor (Hurt)
National Board of Review: Best Actor (Hurt and Julia)

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