Review: Kiss of the Spider Woman (Dir. Héctor Babenco, 1985)

Héctor Babenco’s collaborative Kiss of the Spider Woman, is a stunning film which, in part, plays with the harshest realities and escapist fantasies and yet challenges both social and political norms, even some twenty years after release.

Luis Molina (William Hurt) and Valentin Arregui (Raúl Juliá) share a prison cell in Brazil. They are unlikely bedfellows, not least due to their partisan beliefs. Valentin is a revolutionary; a political prisoner – tortured almost daily by the guards – while Molina identifies as trans and is incarcerated for engaging in a sex act with a minor. There is little more to add in relation to the plot as it unfolds so surprisingly and gracefully, that is really needs to be discovered unspoiled. Based upon Manuel Puig’s novel of the same name, …Spider Woman was initially a potential vehicle for Burt Lancaster. After languishing in development hell while director Babenco made several attempts to seduce author Puig with ice-cream (!) in order to obtain the rights.

It is a spirited film in spite of its subject matter and is truly one of the most intriguing prison-dramas, I have had the pleasure of viewing. While there are small supporting roles, it is Hurt and Juliá’s film. The way they play off of each other is astonishing; like a dance – rhythmic, precise, sophisticated and incredibly moving. It is a complete role reversal, Juliá is restrained as Valentin while Hurt – usually so staid on film – is the extroverted one in his flowered kimono and blood-red turban. His costume(s) and hair colour pop against the greys and blues of the dreary cell backdrop. As they serve out their respective time, Molina describes a love story he has watched at the cinema – in actuality a Nazi Propaganda film named In Her Glory – recounting the affairs of lounge singer Leni Lamaison (Sonia Braga); ‘our’ film cutting to the sepia toned histrionic set of the other. These intercuts are a little clunky and it is no surprise that these sequences were filmed after the main story had wrapped, however, regardless they work and Braga is mesmeric, not only as Lamaison but as Valentin’s girlfriend Marta as well as the titular Spider Woman. Her presence shapes the reality and fantasy aspects of the film and helps them merge as the imagined eventually takes over.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a visually gorgeous masterpiece, it is rich, ambivalent and mysterious while playing with an ideology which is truly rewarding. There are nuances amid the themes of pain, fear and humiliation as the homosexual and Marxist attempt to discover what makes a real man. Released during the Reagan-era and as Rock Hudson died, declaring his sexuality and the illness which would claim his life, …Spider Woman captures the zeitgeist of the 80s and yet, amazingly, remains captivating and somewhat timeless.

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