Title: Kiss of the Spider Woman
Director: Hector Babenco
Cast: William Hurt, Raul Julia,
Synopsis: During the authoritarian military dictatorship of Brazil, two unlikely cellmates find consolation in one another; Luis (Hurt), a transgender woman incarcerated for sexual relations with a minor, and Valentin, (Julia) a leftist revolutionary. While the authorities regularly torture Valentin for his political affiliations, he finds consolation in Luis’ romanticized recollections through his love of films and movie stars.
Critique: I don’t know where Kiss of the Spider Woman came from. Yes, it’s derived from the book of the same name by Manuel Puig and garnered awards and critical praise but I can’t understand why this is a minor classic and not a major one.
Rarely does a film achieve such a vigorously affecting juxtaposition of political crisis and escapism. It’s relatively simple in structure but technically enriching and stylistically articulate.
Valentin is a revolutionary; he’s defined by his beliefs and (in staying true to the revolutionary theory) is willing to die for them; Luis, however, is openly effeminate, identifies as a woman, has a deeply romantic point of view and lives through the lens of escapism. Of course, their contrast leads to an unlikely friendship as Valentin finds solace in the filmic derived flights of fantasy recounted by Luis, and the narrative indulges our senses in their lush realization. This incongruous tale melds verity and illusion with a hazy sense of conviction. Luis’ love for cinema is as fixed as Valentine’s dedication to the leftist cause and it illustrates the significance of art, politics, and their synchronicity to put these seemingly divergent personalities in a desperate setting.
There’s an atmosphere that becomes Kiss of the Spider Woman; it’s similar to how Fassbinder and Fosse found a way to characterize Weimar era or prewar/postwar Berlin richly. But Hector Babenco takes root in the ambiance of Brazil, and instead of imitation, or surrendering gritty realism he creates something else, there’s reflexive mysticism that’s lyrical and transcendent. The Kiss of the Spider Woman has the whiff of Fassbinder while evoking the silent era but Babenco reels it into a favorably stagey and maintained aesthetic that flatteringly indulges our senses.
Julia and Hurt carry the feature. Julia is routinely excellent but this is Hurt coming from an era when not only could he do no wrong but he was always involved in superlative projects. Coming after Altered States, The Big Chill, and Body Heat, Kiss of the Spider Woman is another commanding performance from an actor who would rise to great prominence.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: For all the insights this movie has, Kiss of the Spider Woman has a low visibility rate among LGBT films and despite the prestige it garnered with Oscar nominations (picture; actor for Hurt, who won; director; adapted screenplay), a Criterion release would bring this undervalued film some deserved attention. As of now, Kiss of the Spider Woman is streaming on Filmstruck, which isn’t always a guarantee but a favorable preamble to receiving the Criterion treatment.