Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
Release Date: July 26th, 1985 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Hector Babenco Actors: William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga, Jose Lewgoy, Milton Goncalves, Patricio Bisso, Denise Dummont
o each his own form of escape. For political prisoner Valentin, it is a dream of freedom with the woman he loves; for cellmate Luis, it is to gain a sense of higher purpose by becoming involved with a selfless cause for a love he can never have. In “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” film is an escape on two levels: a momentary reverie from inhuman conditions in a nondescript bastille, and as pure cinematic fantasy for the viewer to become lost in drama, thought-provoking diversions, and film-within-a-film parallels.
Luis Molina (William Hurt) is a homosexual window dresser, now a convict in an undefined Latin American prison (marked simply with the name Pavilhao IV), locked away for corrupting a minor. His cellmate is Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia), a journalist revolutionary detained and tortured for his political ties. At first, Valentin is annoyed by Molina’s fanciful attitude, as the two men clearly have opposite life views, but eventually he grows to depend on Luis’ kindness. It’s a complex relationship, born from seemingly random circumstances, that becomes even more intricate when Luis begins to fall in love – and when his true allegiance is unveiled.
Molina passes the time by telling the story of one of his favorite films, a German propaganda feature that finds distracted singer Leni (Sonia Braga) falling for an enemy Nazi soldier. She’s confused about whether to continue aiding the French Resistance with a plot to steal a secret map to a German arsenal, or simply trusting in the man she loves. As the fictional woman’s story progresses, Molina’s real life begins to imitate the embroidered fiction of the movie – for his involvement with Valentin evolves into something shockingly deliberate.
The performances by William Hurt and Raul Julia are quite masterful, with Hurt embodying a quirky and unexpected character that is resoundingly unique amongst major roles of the time (the actors were reportedly cast in each other’s parts, switching when the chemistry wasn’t natural). Although the story is daringly bizarre and oddly beautiful, the haunting renditions grandly outshine the morals of the tale. In drag and reciting lingering monologues and frequent one-sided conversations, Hurt’s courageous portrayal won him the Best Actor Oscar of 1985.
“Kiss of the Spider Woman’s” claim to fame was it’s groundbreaking achievement of being the first independent film ever to receive the top four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture for producer David Weisman, Best Director for Hector Babenco, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Leonard Schrader, from Manuel Puig’s novel. A melancholy romantic theme presides over the muted browns of Molina’s fantasy narrative, as well as pervading the darkly tinted blues of their bleak, present existence as pawns for the oppressive right-wing regime. The impermanency of love, the perseverance of beliefs, and the escapism and fantasy of the production are just as potent today, with ongoing oppression and uprisings occurring unceasingly throughout the world, allowing this disturbingly psychological picture to be an unforgettable retreat.
– Mike Massie