FILM REVIEW: Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

Kiss of the Spider Woman (Brazil/ USA, 1985)
Directed by Hector Babenco

Starring William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga, Jose Lewgoy

We tend to think of prison dramas as grimly realistic affairs, as typified by Cool Hand Luke, Midnight Express and Escape from Alcatraz. But there are several examples of prison dramas which have blended the harsh realities of life behind bars with elements of the fantastical or spiritual, to create something a lot more uplifting. Nine years before The Shawshank Redemption set the bar very high, Kiss of the Spider Woman was plumbing the same territory.Although it is at the more fanciful end of the spectrum, Kiss of the Spider Woman deserves initial credit for the amount of claustrophobic tension it manages to generate. Most of the action takes place within the four walls of a prison cell, with only occasional cutaways to the prison corridors or the outside world. Hector Babenco shoots Luis and Valentin's living quarters from every possible angle to make us feel hemmed in, and his cinematographer Rodolfo Sanchez completes the effect with poetic, bittersweet lighting. The pale matt colours, stained walls and rain backlit with blue light reinforced the degraded nature of the characters, achieving a similar effect that Alan Parker managed on Birdy or Angel Heart.Because the film has very few locations or changes in scenery, there is a danger that things could quickly become stagey, something which is reinforced by the source material. Manuel Puig's novel, which later became a play and a Broadway musical, is an often uneasy blend of realism and melodrama which would lend a somewhat histrionic quality to any film version. It is testament to Babenco's skill as a director that he is able to have two often outrageous characters sharing the screen without things ever going over-the-top. If William Hurt was just a little more camp, or Raul Julia just' a little more fiery, then it would feel stagey. But Babenco tells us a lot by showing us relatively little, just he would later do on Ironweed.Kiss of the Spider Woman's main theme is the conflict between escapism and reality, and to what extent the former can help us understand or tolerate the latter. There is a contrast between Luis' love of old movies and fantasy with the iron will of Valentin, who regards films as bourgeois and a distraction from the concrete goals of his revolutionary beliefs. While Luis revels in the mystique of old Hollywood, remarking that he always wanted to play the heroine, Valentin likens the whole experience to "jerking off" and remarks that "you wouldn't know reality if it stuck a spike up your ass!"Having drawn the battle lines quite clearly, it gradually emerges that Valentin is not as ascetic as he would have us believe. For all his talk of political principles, what really sustains him through his time in prison is the memory of a woman he loved. More specifically, it is a case of forbidden love: the woman in question, called Marta, comes from a privileged background. In a flashback we see him having to choose between the only person his heart desires and the political struggle to which he has committed himself. Knowing full well he can never have her, he escapes into the few happy memories he has of her, and the film ends with him imagining their reunion.The story of Luis' movie comes to mirror their circumstances in the cell, a further indication of the role of escapism in dealing with reality. The glamorous and frightened cabaret singer is Luis, who 'falls in love' with the enemy (the governors of the prison) to betray his countryman and equal (Valentin). This is a device found throughout Puig's work: Betrayed by Rita Hayworth explores the validity of Hollywood movies as a guide to living a life ungoverned by church or state, while Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages find two men re-enacting melodramatic scenes to find each other's identity.The melodramatic nature of the story reflects both Luis' character traits and, more sinisterly, his intentions towards Valentin. At the beginning we believe that it's all escapist nonsense, too preposterous to require much attention, let alone get angry about. When the accusations come about the film being Nazi propaganda, we brush them off initially as empty rhetoric, but soon the parallels become clearer and we begin to think again.In the latter stages of the story, when Luis is trying to get Valentin to talk, the film becomes a means of leading him to reveal secrets. We question whether Luis has been genuine at all, or whether his desire to escape was far more literal. It's an interesting device to get us thinking about the way that film blends and confuses reality and fiction, and how people can be manipulated by little more than clever storytelling - something expertly practised by Goebbels and his followers.With this plot development, Kiss of the Spider Woman becomes a film about betrayal and the dynamics of exploitation. Luis turns out to be working for the prison governor, whose government wants to expose and arrest the extremists that Valentin is helping. But the dynamic between them is still not straightforward. On the one hand, Luis admits that he has fallen in love with Valentin, and therefore cannot bring himself to betray him (although, of course, he doesn't say this out loud). On the other hand, Luis is tired of being manipulated by the people around him, and promises Valentin that if he is released, he will be his own man. His death is ironic, since he is unable to make this move or to choose between two masters.The film also explores sexuality, specifically in Valentin's attitude to Luis' homosexuality. In the first act, Valentin is incredibly hostile, calling Luis a "faggot" at every possible moment. In one scene, he pulls Luis' legs apart and lets forth a blistering tirade about how he would still be a men even he had the guts to cut off his genitals. But as the film moves on, and Luis opens up to Valentin with several acts of kindness, a level of respect grows between the men until the issue of sexuality no longer seems an issue. The film's treatment of sexuality is arguably more shallow than Puig's novel, but it does at least get its sexual politics right without looking like it is consciously trying to do so.The two central performances in Kiss of the Spider Woman are both of a high calibre. Raul Julia is the more understated of the two, but he is a fiery and compelling screen presence, and we believe in his character right from the beginning. With William Hurt, it takes a little more time. When we first meet him, he is swanning around in a turban and dressing down, looking like David Bowie in his video for 'Blue Jean'. But though his character is undoubtedly effeminate, this is not a clichéd Hollywood gay performance, all mincing and hinged wrists. Hurt is very convincing, and in the latter stages takes on a Ralph Fiennes quality: the sunken-in eyes and slicked-back hair are reminiscent of Fiennes' performance in The English Patient.All that is good and bad about Kiss of the Spider Woman can be found in its recreation of Hollywood movies. Babenco carefully recreates the sepia visuals and big-gestured acting styles, resisting the temptation to be arch and snigger at them under his breath. But while he never falls into the traps that Peter Bogdanovich did in At Long Last Love, he ends up being so overtly affectionate that we are the ones who end up sniggering. One cannot help laughing at the club-footed resistance member cornering the cabaret singer whilst holding a dog, because it's played so assuredly straight that it becomes absurd.There are other flaws as well. The film reveals its main development (i.e. Luis' betrayal) far too readily, and after this one little detail the film starts to unravel. Once the action moves to outside the prison, a lot of the tension goes with it, like lifting the lid off a prison cooker. Because things are running out of steam so markedly, the film tries to recapture that tension with a shootout, a move which partially succeeds but also smacks of desperation. In its actual ending, involving Valentin slipping into a fantasy involving his lost lover, the film falls into the trap of confusing the movie version of love with the true love the characters experienced. It opts for pure escapism over anything more emotionally rewarding.Kiss of the Spider Woman is an engrossing and intense prison drama, undone only by its melodramatic moments and rambling ending. The central performances are believable and compelling, and Babenco's direction does justice to Puig's novel by achieving a decent balance between the gritty and theatrical. It's not Babenco's finest work, and in the grand scheme of prison dramas it has long since been eclipsed by The Shawshank Redemption. But the film has lost very little of its emotional power, and still makes for intriguing viewing.

Verdict: Powerful but by no means perfect


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